This is not your average Australian film. In fact, it’s as international as it gets. The action takes place in New South Wales, but the crew and cast are very international indeed. The director Partho Sen-Gupta is originally from Mumbai, while the lead role is played by Palestinian actor Adam Bakri. The topics addressed are also universal: cultural assimilation, Islamophobia and religious/political extremism.
Ameena (Danielle Horvat) is a young rebel. She lives with her mother, a Palestinian refugee. She’s an activist and a feminist. She wears a hijab out of choice because she believes that women should be respected for their fists, and not for their curves. She routinely engages in slam poetry in the local community centre, a competition in which poets perform the spoken word. The letters “S-L-A-M” are written on her hand, very much à la The Night of the Hunter (Charles Laughton, 1955). Her performances are hypnotic and passionate. Her room is covered in Palestinian freedom, fight racism and antifa posters.
Her brother Ricky, on the other hand, is not politically active. He’s married to a pretty Australian woman, with whom he’s had two children (plus she’s now expecting a third one). They run a small cafe and shy away from political controversy. Ricky feels very Australian. His relationship to his sister Ameena is a little distant, given their very different lifestyles and political beliefs.
Then one day Ameena vanishes. Local police officer Joanne Hendriks (Rachael Blake) begins to investigate the missing person case, only for Ameena to be caught on CCTV abroad. She has become a “homegrown jihadi bride”, a newspaper cries out. Despite not even being a suspect of terrorism, Ricky’s life is turned upside down by paparazzi and police investigations. The young father slowly realises that he’s not as Australian as he thinks. He’s still a “wog”, a friend of Ameena asserts. He’s a second-class citizen, and he’s not exempt of racism and Islamophobia.
Slam does not blame individual Australians for racism. Aussies are not vilified. Ricky’s Australian family are very supportive of him. Joanne hesitates to believe that Ameena is a jihadi, despite the CCTV evidence. She confronts her boss, and wishes to carry on with a missing person case (instead of a jihadi/witch-hunt). Joanne reconciles the sternness of police duty with the humanity of someone who has also experienced a tragedy in her life, the byproduct of political actions. Blake’s performance is nothing short of astounding.
Xenophobia is a more sophisticated and yet no less dangerous form of patriarchal violence and colonial oppression. This anti-immigrant sentiment is constantly fed through the radio, television waves and also written newspapers. Headlines such as “Monsters want to behead Aussie pilot!!!” help to concoct the “Us versus Them” narrative. Nationalism is intimately linked to bigotry, and the argument that a generous Australia opened their doors to ungrateful immigrants/refugees is repeated throughout the movie. Ameena’s mother, however, begs to differ. She used to be a teacher in Palestine, while in Australia she was advised that she could never be more than a seamstress or a cleaner.
A profoundly reactionary and dangerous trend is addressed in the movie: denaturalisation. This is already conspicuous in the US and, to a lesser extend, in the UK. Now Australia is also joining the bandwagon. In Slam, the media suggests that not only “jihadi traitors” (such as Ameena) should be stripped of their citizenship, but also their entire family. A friend of Ameena could face denaturalisation simply because he donated A$400 to a Palestinian charity. The repercussions for Ricky could be disastrous. So should he apologise on behalf of his sister? Or should he try to understand what drove her to such extreme actions?
Slam is a impeccable piece of filmmaking. It will keep you hooked throughout its relatively long duration of almost two hours. Each and every character has depth, and nothing is redundant. The outcome is neither Manichean nor exploitative. Shaky camera moves are used to convey franticness an emotional despair, while red images are used to illustrate violence and also the memories of war. Very simple and yet effective devices. Plus get prepared for one of the most shocking endings I have seen in a long time. The final image of a person inside a car (I can tell you more without spoiling the movie) will haunt me for some time.
The extremely powerful slam poetry in the film was written by Lesbian feminist activist Candy Royalle, who sadly passed away this year after a battle against cancer. The film is dedicated to her.
Slam showed in Competition at the 22nd Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival (2018), when this piece was originally written. It premieres in Australia on June 15th 2019 as part of the Sydney Film Festival.