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Love in the Time of Terror: Slam at Sydney Film Festival

by Ingrid Matthews
June 19, 2019 on Australian Critical Race and Whiteness Studies Association website

Danielle Horvat as Ameena

Slam is a devastating film. Devastatingly good, devastatingly sad, and devastatingly accurate in its portrayal of racism in Australia. The camera turns its gaze on two institutions in particular: the media; and law enforcement.

It was the unfolding complicity between police and journalists – to co-create a story out of thin air, to fabricate evidence of a fiction flying in the face of facts – that drove Slam home for me. The film is set around Bankstown, an Arab-Australian population centre and southern wedge of Western Sydney, an urban sprawl of multitudes. While based further west, I recognised those brightly lit restaurant strips and dank police stations immediately. I live here, and work here, and observe the yawning chasm between perception and reality created by media and the law every day of my life. I could smell that wet road.

The film opens with Ameena (Danielle Horvat) slamming straight to camera, the rhythm and cadence of her words not immediately apparent as poetry, at least not to this stranger in her world. The performance is suspenseful, masterful, brave; she speaks the truth of colonisation from power to power, her words grounded in earth and addressed to mother. The close-up tells us that she is woman, she is poet, and she wears the hijab, before panning back to show an enthralled and applauding audience. The scene fades as a cameo by Uncle Ken Canning places us squarely on stolen Aboriginal lands.

The slam and a bustle of neatly clipped scenes – an alleyway, on-screen text messages, a cigarette smoked, a car in the distance through the rain – are fleeting moments with Ameena. For the rest of the film we get to know her indirectly: through her words, her mother, her brother, her best friend; her most private space, a bedroom wall that calls for freedom, a bureau drawer with the heavy  wrought iron key to a home long taken. The ghost of her social media presence, while pivotal to the plot, is obscured by the clamour of traditional media voices: the radio news bulletins, the scrum of reporters, the tabloid journalist who constructs a fictional journey as the truth slides away, neglected. 

Adam Bakri as Ricky (Tariq)

It is through the voice of mother Rana (Darina Al Joundi) and eyes of brother Tariq (Adam Bakri) that we hear first that Ameena is late home, and then gone. Tariq’s responsibilities frame her disappearance: a late-night phone call, the menacing thump of windscreen wipers, cut by the intrusive voice of the radio newsreader. The hearty bonhomie of wife Sally’s (Rebecca Breed) family of impossibly annoying gin-tasters, sentimental singalongs, and performative loyalty, blur into the background for ‘Ricky’ (his white people name). 

Tariq drives alone through pouring rain to a dimly-lit police station. He feels the radio news bulletins in his bones. An Australian military jet has come down over the Syria-Iraq conflict zone and its pilot, who is sure to be white and male, a poster-boy for Australian martyrdom, is reported captured and destined for a gruesome execution. Childhood memories of his own father’s execution crowd his mind.

This tension bifurcates throughout the film. Each encounter is defined by whiteness and otherness. When Tariq reports his sister to the missing persons officer Jo Hendricks (Rachael Blake), he knows the threats of racist violence he has seen addressed to his sister online are substantive. But he must instead bat away the flimsy threads from which a story about his sister will be spun. 

Rachael Blake as Joanne

In contrast to the frame-up that awaits Ameena, each domestic detail fills in a little more truth about the people who miss her in familiar trips across western Sydney. The cultural poverty of whiteness is witheringly portrayed, in the heavy luxury of the in-law’s furniture (and conversation), to the sagging balloons strung above a concrete patio at Jo’s joyless family birthday. 

Joylessness turns to menace turns to violence when Jo’s ex-partner, the father of her late son, follows her out, begging for her attention. His hulking, drunken neediness is terrifying. Unlike the terror narrative imposed on Ameena, this man is less stereotype and more typology, a moving mountain who alchemises pain into anger and turns both on the woman he says he loves. 

Meanwhile, Tariq searches the city for clues. Reporters gather daily outside his old family home, outside his new family home. As his mother and wife and daughter orbit his responsibility, Tariq orbits the absence of Ameena, which is filling with flashbacks to a checkpoint in the desert, to his terrified younger self, to the loss of his father. 

All this tension around the grieving extended Nasser family and friends is cut across by the cruelty of crisp newsreader tones, bulletins like bullets, telling Tariq what he already knows, that the Australian state will punish him, a man of middle-eastern appearance, for the execution of the son they sent to the middle east in a warplane.

As Tariq snaps, first at Omar and then at the reporters, Jo brushes off her bruises and goes to work. Like the press pack, the police are determined to create a terrorist narrative. The Nassers, who are in fact under attack from the combined power of the press, the police, and hegemonic whiteness, have to do something. It goes unsaid, but the white in-laws are aghast. They are not racist, but written into their faces is self-fulfilment of prophecy. They really knew, you see. Deep down. It’s not the skin tone of marrying brown, but the violence of those people. 

Perhaps the most devastating scene in the film stems from this intervention. Having lost his father and his sister, his family driven first from their Palestinian homelands and then from their Australian home, Tariq is forced to ‘fix things’. He is left with no choice but to side with whiteness, regardless of the truth. 

The sound designer excelled. The insects were essential to placing us between flashbacks, in tacking from the militarised desert to the urban landscape of western  Sydney, where men in uniform who pose an existential threat are the common thread. When dream and nightmare blurred with reality, between childhood and adulthood, Australia and Palestine, day and night, it was the insects and birdsong that grounded this audience member in time and place. 

In melding that ominous throb of the windscreen wipers on those wet drives across western Sydney, so familiar to this working western Sydney mum, with the heartbeat of baby in utero as Tariq and Sally attend an ultra sound appointment. Sally being pregnant, and baby arriving at the end, are not a prominent narrative strand but are, I think, essential to both story and mood, to film and to audience, to our humanity. Life, after all, does go on.

Slam is directed by Partho Sen-Gupta. It premiered at the 2019 Sydney Film Festival last week and will screen in film festivals around the country. It will have a limited release in big cities.