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
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