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The Low Down on Down Under: An Interview with Abe Forsythe
Abe Forsythe is no fan of comedies that are just comedic – “And I get bored with dramas that are just dramatic and nothing else,” he says. It’s fitting, then, that he has spent the last five years bringing to life Down Under, a thigh-slapping feature set amidst the shameful race riots that rocked Australia in 2005.
It has been more than a decade since a spotlight was cast on Cronulla beach on Sydney’s southern coast when mob violence – stemming from tensions between local youth from Anglo-Saxon and Middle Eastern backgrounds – broke out and spread into neighbouring suburbs. Australian Writer, director, and actor Forsythe was in the UK at the time and watched events in his homeland in horror and disbelief. It would be another five years, in the months before becoming a father, before he would write a script that responds to these events and reflects upon the world he was bringing a child into.
The result is a high-octane tale taking place the night after the riots erupted. Following two groups from different sides of the violence, Down Under makes a mockery of racism and fear, and highlights the similarities that exist in all of us – even when our ugliest and darkest tendencies are on show.
From the outset Forsythe knew that he was entering sensitive territory and that cracking the right tone would be vital. “It was so important that we all knew that, even though it is a comedy, it’s a tragedy as well,” he says. Prior to the shoot he worked with editor Drew Thompson to cut together footage from the riots and the days that followed. This was shown to all cast and crew as they came on board the project. “The footage was our way of saying, ‘We are about to go in and make a comedy, but look at this first’,” Forsythe says. “This context infused how we all approached the script. It made it darker, so we didn’t take what we were doing – the story we were telling – lightly.”
On set, Forsythe’s years of experience as an actor came into play when working with the cast. “My film school as a director was working on sets as an actor,” he says. “I love working with actors and I love being able to give them what I craved as an actor.” The cast, made up of long-term collaborators and new faces, were all given latitude to develop their characters. In particular, he highlights the close collaboration he had with the actors playing characters with Middle Eastern heritage. “It was important to me to cast actors that represented the cultures they are playing,” Forsythe says. “They taught me a lot about their backgrounds and also about their experiences of being Australian and that in turn meant that they can stand behind this movie in the same way I can.”
Similarly, first-time actor Chris Bunton – who plays Evan, an innocent from out of town who goes along for the ride – opened Forsythe’s eyes up to the experiences of people with Down syndrome. “On his third day, Chris was in a scene where he gets abused three times. I thought, ‘This is throwing him into the deep end’,” Forsythe says. Forsythe cast himself in the scene, believing he needed to create a safe space for his actor. But it soon became evident that despite Bunton’s inexperience, he required no assistance. “We start the scene and it’s really tense, but not only was Chris not offended by what was being said, he was fluctuating his performance take to take, exploring the vulnerability of the role. So then I come in to act in the scene and I think, ‘I’m not needed. Why am I doing this?’”
‘Why?’ is also a question that came up with some exhibitors once the film was in the can. Reports have trickled out claiming that certain cinemas have opted not to show the film because they believe it is too provocative, or that it should not have been made. Despite this, Down Under has the backing of distributor Studio Canal and has received rousing receptions at both Melbourne and Sydney Film Festivals. In September it will play Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, a territory the director feels is “frighteningly relevant to this conversation”.
The conversation is now well underway and will continue with the national release of Down Under. Not that Forsythe believes his comedic treatise has all the answers. “A movie is never going to solve anything or change innate behaviour. One thing it can do is make you question things,” he says. “I want to give people the opportunity to laugh at how stupid and how crazy racism is. But also I’d like people to feel a bit sad about it because I think if you feel sad, then you can eventually heal.”