A couple of weeks ago I spoke to David Field about his directorial debut The Combination, a new Australia film exploring gang violence in Sydney’s western suburbs. It was a pretty interesting chat about the film’s background and the issues faced by the Lebanese-Australia community…
Was the screening last week the first time you’d sat down and seen the film with the cast?
No, I’ve had one cast and crew screening I’d already sat in, but this was only the second time I’d really sat through the film with any sort of audience.
How are you and the cast all feeling about it now that the film’s finished and you just gotta get people out to see it?
Well yeah, the hard work is still to come unfortunately mate. I think almost this is the hardest part of the film, especially in this country where Australian films aren’t carrying any currency with them at the moment and it’s difficult to get to the screens to reach your audience. So it’s actually quite a difficult time, the easy part is making the film and that’s the joy, when you are in your pleasure. This other stuff is a real learning curve, especially for me. I think the cast and crew though are all very proud of what they’ve done and confident that they have at least made a film that certainly can be respected.
This is your feature directorial debut, how did you come to be involved with the project?
I was selling a car to a couple of Lebanese mates seven years ago up in the Cross, they came up to discuss the price, saw that I was an actor and said they had a mate who was also an actor and I said great, get him on the phone and we’ll have a chat. We happened to have been in the same film Blackrock five year earlier and George (Basha) had written a script because there was no real work for him as a Lebanese actor, he couldn’t seem to break back into the back again. He had written this script, I read it and thought it was a really important piece of work. So we’ve spent the past seven years working on a script, developing it to a point where we were happy and trying to raise money in between.
How much did you know about the Lebanese-Australia experience prior to that?
I think like a lot of people, more of what you hear than what you know. Obviously it was a real eye-opening for me getting into that world. The moment I entered George’s street I know I was in a world I hadn’t been in before. I was so welcome by the community and his family. One of the things that appealed to me in the script was that we could find the beauty in the Lebanese culture, which is why I never wanted to shoot the film like TV with handhelds or fast cutting. I wanted to see the beauty of the world come out as much as the ferocity of everything else going on around it.
There’s obviously an authenticity throughout the film, and in the music as well, that must have been hugely important for you…
A lot of people haven’t mentioned the music and I’m glad you have. I think Labib Jammal’s music here surely one of the best soundtracks to come out of this country for a long, long time, not just for its authenticity, but its artistry. Jimmy really knows how to sit with a film and feel a film, like that beautiful scene that comes out of the break-up of the couple and into the shooting at the dance – it’s just a masterful piece of sound and music work that goes on there.
Morricone used to state that you should never have more than two sounds on the screen, that was his golden rule and I always thought it was a wonderful idea. We actually tried to stick to that formula throughout the film but we got to that point and there was three or four sounds coming through and it just adds to this segue-way from the lovers fight to this amazing scene then come out of it with Mishline Jammal singing. I just think he was able to do what a lot of people in this country can’t, which is instead of backing up the violence with some overt sound that we’re all supposed to get scared by and intensifying the drama, what he has done is worked against it with a beautiful ‘scape that holds the drama up. I think he is an extraordinary talent and we were lucky to find him.
How much of what you captured of the Lebanese culture was from George’s input and how much from what you saw as necessary?
That was always a mixture, I was probably as pushy as George about that. I always knew that the restaurant scene was one that I wanted to make the audience wish they were there for, that they could get up and dance right there and then. Anywhere we could encapsulate that we tried to move towards it. Even the shots of Parramatta with them by the river almost has that Venetian look. We tried to utilise the beauty of Parramatta wherever we could and at other times we tried to use that kind of West Side Story alleyway, leaving a layer between the camera and the actor to also show the economic background that exists around the area. There’s always that mix, but you never want it to be overt or that much of a statement tot he audience.
The film is also quite an ensemble piece, how was managing all those young and inexperienced actors in that context?
To be quite honest a lot easier than people might think, they responded so innately to the piece. There’s a couple of guys there who are going to be actors in the industry, they’re not just first timers who are going back on the trail. There are kids there with genuine talent who I think have been given this opportunity as an actor and grabbed it. They were very disciplined in fact.
I’ve gotta ask you about Ali Haider who plays Zeus in the film and is currently in jail on assault charges, it must be very difficult especially as you’re just starting to promote the film for release…
It’s difficult, but our concerns are more with Ali than with anything else. I would dare say it looks as if we’re going to get him out, but I can’t really comment on the situation that much other than to say I was very sad when I heard and saw Ali because he was an absolute gentleman to work with. I got on with Ali like a house on fire, on his last day of filming I asked him how he was feeling and he said ‘I’ve been really affected by this. This has challenged a lot of things about racism and all sorts of things I feel in my heart that have been affected by this film’. I think he could have an immense career, I don’t think we’ve seen anyone with so much charisma on the screen for quite a while.
Obviously that experience in the western suburbs of Sydney is extremely important to the film, were you ever worried about how you were portraying that side of things in the film?
Not at all because I always had faith in George’s decisions about things. George was always the one who I bounced back off of, he’s incredibly intuitive and streetwise. We never introduced religion though people tried to convince us left, right and centre for example, it’s already there in the back of people’s minds. What we were more interested in was telling a story that was entertaining. I knew culturally that there was a lot of back up not just from George but other Lebanese people who had read the script, also when the boy came I asked them if there was anything that didn’t seem right or that agitated them. They said ‘no, this is how our world really is’. It was never a problem because once again I knew how much beauty we had within the Lebanese culture.
I think there are certain Lebanese businessmen, upper-middle class in Australia who would not want to be associated with this and would rather we just have made a nice middle class love story, but that’s not this film. I think one of the other great things about George’s script is that he has a dig at his own mob as well as the Aussies. It’s a complex issue rather than a statement and the job was to retain those complexities, which is important in drama.
You been an working as an actor in Australian film and television for some 20 years, how has that experienced contributed to you directing style?
I’ve been directing other people’s rehearsals in films for the last five or six years and I’ve directed theatre as well so it as always moving towards that for me. The acting stuff helps greatly because I love the technical aspects of acting as well as the raw stuff. But look, I didn’t sit there and try to give these people a lesson in acting, that’s not how you deal with people. There’s one technique you can give people for a film and that’ll probably last them three or four years. You don’t have to trounce people with some sort of intellectual braggetry that isn’t going to assist them. It’s all about finding other people’s language, that’s what I enjoy finding out, who the people are and how to tap into their language.
How important is this film in respective of being giving honest portrayal of the experiences of all Australians?
Since 9/11 anyone Arabic has been copping a helluva time from the media and I think it is time for us to venture from the eastern suburbs and the inner west and look at the bigger population and the stories from out there. There must be hundreds of George Basha’s waiting to tell their story. I think the future of Australian cinema is going to depend upon the gluing together of an old way of looking at Australia and a very new and realistic way of looking at Australia. Certainly no-one has ever made a Lebanese drama in this country and I think we have succeeded on many levels of entertaining the audience first and foremost. It’s ground-breaking no two ways about it, but it’s only important if you walk out of the film having been transported somewhere else, to a world you didn’t know.
There are only two audiences for a film, those that recognise the world and those that don’t and are curious about it. Bra Boys only came out last year and I thought that was an important film, highly important in fact, I want those guys to come a see this film because I think they will relate to it from the coast end to the western suburbs, there’s a connection between these people. I though Bra Boys was the best film of the year hands down, it was compelling and made me empathise with those kids and where they come from. Again you get into socio-economics and you come back to these tough lives where people come together because they have to. We’re not here to educate people but certainly a dramatic film should have some sense of an emotional experience on you. Hopefully we’ve done that with The Combination.
The Combination is released in cinemas February 26.