Race riots and the multiplex

Cedar BoysThis week, Aussie film Cedar Boys will hit the big screen. It is the second film in just a few months that will portray the lives of Lebanese boys in South-Western Sydney. Caught between the usual dilemmas of youth, they must also grapple with  issues of crime and culture in what they feel is an already hostile world.

A few months ago, The Combination graced Australian cinemas. It shook social foundations both on and off the screen until it was banned for inciting patron violence. Days later it was reinstated, albeit with an anti-violence message from the producer somehow wedged into its introduction. The question  remained whether it had achieved all that it was meant to.

The past 12 months have showcased the above films, as well as the play From Lebanon With Love II and the Cronulla Riots-based drama Stories of Love and Hate. So the boys of Lebanon and the Middle East have a lot to answer for. They have found a niche in the Aussie pop cultural sphere, at least in drama and film, and within an academic analytical framework.

The success of these productions implies that the stories of identity, crime, revenge and belonging that they represent are striking a chord somewhere. 

In March this year, The Daily Telegraph reported that The Combination averaged $17,744 in the NSW metropolitan area in its first three days — despite the fact that four Greater Union Cinemas had banned it. In the context of last year's top box office earner, The Dark Knight, which had averaged $24,957, this was a huge success.

But why? In their own way, these productions all deal with Arab-Australians as the 'other', examining the extent of their assimilation, the codes that they live by, and their functions in a society in which issues of tolerance have reigned important for almost a decade.

In the aftermath of September 11 and the infamous gang-rapes, it seems easy to say why this is so. Easy to argue that 'we' ought undoubtedly to have questioned what codes these 'others' lived by, and whether or not these codes constituted 'Australianness'.

In fact all the right-thinking people necessary to ensure a moral panic about the Middle Eastern community did question the support by the 'others' of our 'fair go' Australian values. Religious leaders, politicians, and all-round high-ranking Aussies were among those who  weren't entirely sure what these 'others' represented. And in Cronulla, whether or not they belonged.

These films show that the 'others' themselves were grappling with the same question.

An industry insider told me of the response his mate received when applying some years ago for an acting job in an Australian film. This fellow had studied with the best of them at NIDA, was a Lebanese Catholic whose terrorism know-how was about as limited as Bush's skills in dealing with it, and who had made considerable progress in developing his talent as he sought to further his drama dream. Following his audition he received a rejection letter with the simple message that they'd be in touch when they had a part for a 'café-bomber'.

Such stories make me question my own determination to shake the representations of those of Middle Eastern background, and my desire to prove that they do have a valuable contribution to make to this society. I refuse to give up my long-held hope that they can find the space in the middle. I hope they will be able to mesh their ethnic background with that of the tenants of 'Australianness' that I myself hold dear and admire.

But it's possible that I should abandon my hopes. For even though the 'others' have not found the middle space I dreamed of, they are obviously quite comfortable in being 'other'. These productions seem to show that certain notions of 'otherness' and of the war between 'us and them' have become such a part of the Australian way of life that our film industry is lapping it up, loving it, and working with this niche.

In doing so, however, they might only further the divide. These productions are quite different to the 'ethnic Australia' films of years past. Sure, they all have protagonists who are grappling with their identity, but the similarity ends there.

So while Josephine Alibrandi searched for acceptance and wog boy Nick Giannopoulos humorously challenged his representation, the cedar boys embrace it. They accept their pigeon-holing and cash in on its limitations.

This was evident in the promotional features of The Combination. The film invited viewers to 'come and see the real Australia', but instead took them back to the streets of western Sydney, where the haircuts alone could  suggest a parallel universe. So is the real Australia more divided than we think?

If these films, their contribution to the Australian film industry, and their success are anything to go by, this might really be the case. By embracing their difference, and in a sense rejecting their ability and willingness to assimilate, they have ironically made the 'others' become so very interestingly Australian.

Sarah AyoubSarah Ayoub is a freelance journalist, speaker and copywriter. She is co-publisher of Trespass and editor of Wordsmith Lane. Sarah is a postgraduate research student at The University of Sydney, where she is writing a thesis on the glamorisation by the Australian media of gang culture among Sydney's Middle-Eastern community.

Topic tags: sarah ayoub, cedar boys, The Combination, Lebanese Australians



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Existing comments

Thank you for this interesting and thoughtful review.I agree with what you express. When we fail to acknowledge and accept difference, then we are lesser people. As Neil Sedaka has sung in his song 'The Immigrant', 'there was a time when strangers were welcome here'. What has happened to that time? And have we forgotten the many wonderful things we gained from those "strangers" who believed that they could fulfil their dreams in this Country? Have we forgotten that Christ accepted the strangers and those who were 'different'?Like the author, I hope that this film succeeds. Maybe very slowly we will come to realise that we are all, irrespective of identity,searching to fulfil our dreams.

Maybe, to borrow from Neil Sedaka again,music will play again, the days will be sweet and clear and there will be so much room that people from everywhere will be welcomed.The majority of those who wish to come to this country are not terrorists and gang-rapists. They are ordinary people like those of us who are here, people who have dreams and who wish to contribute to the society which has welcomed them.
Peter | 30 July 2009

Congratulations Sarah. Insightful,hard hitting and very well written article. Hope it is widely read. Subverting the stereotype is never easy, especially when, the "Hey! Sit up and take notice of me!" images acted out by young Lebanese males are now finding a niche in our popular culture.

Once upon a time I used to complain that there were no reflections of myself in popular culture... now there are images aplenty if you're a young Lebanese guy.

This article will resonate with anyone who has ever searched for that "place in the middle" that you talk about, given up in frustration, and chosen to embrace their difference. The middle place is there--it's just damned hard finding it and claiming it as your own.
Hanifa Deen | 10 August 2009


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