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Watching David Field’s The Combination over ten years after its released, it’s difficult to see exactly why this film was as contentious as it was when it first landed. This isn’t to say that a film about Lebanese-Australians in the western suburbs of Sydney and the racism that they face day in, day out, doesn’t still pack a punch, it’s just that there have been a wealth of equally acerbic films in the time since then. But let’s judge the film for itself, and not the films that have come after it.

The Combination is written by George Basha, who also takes the lead as John, a Lebanese-Australian who has just gotten out of jail and is looking to make a better life for himself and his family. He recognises the errors of his past, and doesn’t want his younger brother, Charlie (Firass Dirani), to follow the same path as him. However, given that John was gone for so long, Charlie no longer sees him as the brother figure he wants or needs anymore, so when the white bullies at school rally against Charlie and his friends, well, things get more violent than they should. Further removed from the guidance of John, Charlie and his friend Zeus (Ali Haider), find themselves dealing drugs for local kingpin Ibo (Michael Denkha), and inevitably all the troubles that come with being a low level drug dealer. Meanwhile, John has managed to find himself a girlfriend, Sydney (Clare Bowen), who just happens to be white.

The reputation of The Combination precedes it, with two violent incidents occurring during the film’s opening week. This caused the film to be pulled from some theatres, before finally being reopened with extra security measures in place. But, all talk of violence around the film works to actually minimise what is a genuinely engaging narrative about a Lebanese-Australian family wanting to grow up safe in Australia. Basha wrote the script as a reflection on his own life experiences growing up in Australia, and there is a level of authenticity that comes through strong in the familial moments, with both Basha and Dirani working brilliantly together, and the always welcome Doris Younane as their mother Mary keeping the two in line.

So the family focused moments show truth in the old saying of ‘writing what you know’, and unfortunately the same thing applies to the scenes focused around racial tension. But, it’s the crime and thug life aspect that drags the film down. There’s a little too much ‘first script’ sheen that lingers over the film, with the feeling that both Basha and David Field were attempting to add to the already stacked Aussie-gangster catalogue, and in turn, that aspect feels half-baked and just a little too predictable.

Which is a shame, as most of the gangster stuff appears to simply exist so that Charlie can have a gun in his hand in the third act. In turn, it also appears to add to the heated, manufactured, ‘foreigners doing crime’ narrative that many of the far-right tend to drag up out of nowhere. This is not to say that Australia doesn’t have a history of crime from different ethnographic groups, but show me any group in the world who hasn’t had a history of crime in some regard? Remove this aspect from The Combination, and you’re left with a much more compelling narrative about a kid growing up in high school in a world where the Cronulla riots are taking place. While Basha’s script comes from a place of understanding, he’s not strong enough a writer to give these themes the narrative weight they need to be properly explored and presented.

Performances are fine across the board, with Firass Dirani really excelling as Charlie, funnelling anger and frustration into a character who simply wants to exist without the fear of constant abuse and aggression thrown his way. George Basha is serviceable as John, with it becoming clear relatively quickly that he’s written himself a role that easily makes himself look good. Clare Bowen is fine as Sydney, with some solid scenes of tension between her and her parents arising near the end.

It’s great to see films like The Combination existing in the realm of Australian cinema. While this isn’t a perfect film, it does carry enough relevance to Australian society to make it worthwhile seeking out, especially given The Combination Redemption has just hit cinemas.

Director: David Field
Cast: George Basha, Firass Dirani, Clare Bowen
Writer: George Basha