Back in 1999, The Combination whipped up a mini-firestorm. This was no conventional Aussie film. It was directed by veteran character actor and first time helmer, David Field (Chopper, Ghosts…Of The Civil Dead), who’d been brought onto the project by first-time writer, George Basha, who was at the time toiling as a panel beater in Sydney’s western suburbs. Tough, gritty, and bruising in its authenticity, the film was a deeply humanistic portrayal of young lives lived rough in a part of Australia hitherto largely ignored in Australian cinema.
Set in the Lebanese-Australian community of Guildford, the film tracks John (an impressive Basha in his first major screen role), who returns home after a stint in prison determined to turn his life around and provide a guiding hand to his younger brother, Charlie (Firass Dirani), who is slowly, inevitably drifting toward a world of violence. Earnest and no-nonsense, John tries to pull his brother away from the influence of his trouble-prone mate Zeus (Ali Haider), who is working as a runner for local drug dealer, Ibo (Michael Denkha). Toiling as a cleaner in a gym under the watchful eye of seen-it-all Wes (Tony Ryan), the tough, resourceful John struggles to walk the straight-and-narrow, but can’t help being drawn into the world of crime that his younger brother is so dangerously dancing with.
Now, ten years later, Basha has re-entered the world of The Combination with the surprise sequel, The Combination Redemption. We find John a deeply troubled and close-to-broken man, still plagued by guilt over his brother’s shooting death at the climax of the first film. “He’s basically got post-traumatic stress disorder,” Basha tells FilmInk. “I did a lot of research into that during my writing of the script. His story is basically the story of hundreds of people who suffer through post-traumatic stress disorder. While The Combination was very much based on my own life and my own experiences living in Sydney’s western suburbs, the second film is much different. This was more about research and a different kind of subject matter.”
In The Combination Redemption, Basha’s John is in a state of constant crisis: he’s an Arabic Christian dating the Muslim Amira (Abbey Aziz); he’s on the wrong side of a crew of bumbling but still dangerous White Pride lunatics; and the appearance of the late Charlie’s always-in-trouble friend, Mo (Rahel Romahn), has put him in the crosshairs of flamboyant but viciously ruthless criminal, Nas (Johnny Nasser). Beset by trouble on every side, John – still guided by the sensible, big-hearted boxing trainer, Wes (the recently departed Tony Ryan again brings massive gravitas to the role) – desperately tries to keep a calm head, but even a decent man has a breaking point. And with the world around him boiling in confrontation, John’s inherent sense of decency is challenged even further.
It was this world at large that really got the ball rolling on The Combination Redemption. “Fans of the first film would often approach me and ask about a sequel,” Basha explains. “But I was really inspired by what was happening around me, and what I was seeing on the news. The words of people like Pauline Hanson and Donald Trump really had an effect on me. Things seem to have changed a lot since The Combination came out. And as I did with post-traumatic stress disorder, I really started to research these types of figures, as well as white supremacist groups in general. The group of young white supremacists in this film is very similar to Charlie and his friends in the first film. Both groups are being exploited and preyed upon by older people who have been able to get into their heads and feed them this bullshit. This kind of story seemed like a good fit in terms of what we’d started with The Combination, and it seemed like a good place to put the character of John. I just had to pitch it to Fieldy,” Basha laughs.
Needless to say, however, the actor and occasional director – who had also directed writer/star, Basha, in 2014’s brutal and uncompromising prison drama, Convict – was quickly sold, and the duo was back in business. Their mission statement was the same as it was with The Combination. “It’s great to get people talking, but I want them to be entertained too,” Basha says. “I very much want to continue the discussion that we started with The Combination, but I want people to be excited and emotionally moved by the film too.”
Having that conversation, however, is proving increasingly difficult, with Australian films finding it tougher than ever before in asserting their position in the marketplace. “It’s always been tough,” says Basha. “We can’t have posters everywhere, and advertising on the sides of buses. We just don’t have the money to do that…no Australian film does, let alone smaller, independently produced films. We have to get out there by word of mouth, and doing whatever we can to promote the film. Most of the major media outlets don’t want to have anything to do with us. They won’t talk to us…we can’t get on any of their shows. We’ve got to get out there and do what we can.”
Hopefully, The Combination Redemption won’t be beset by the kind of trouble that swirled around the first film. During some initial cinema screenings, there was fighting and minor bursts of violence. There were, significantly, just a few minor incidents, as opposed to the full scale riots that ridiculous media reports suggested. In response, The Combination was pulled from select cinemas, quickly derailing what had been a highly successful opening period. By the time the film was returned to theatres after the cinema chains’ decision was questioned, the damage had already been done. Many potential audience members weren’t even aware that the film – which was previously enjoying screen averages as good as those of The Dark Knight – was back in cinemas, while others were frightened off by the reports of violence. The film did, however, find a second life on DVD, where it has enjoyed much success.
When FilmInk asks Basha about the controversy, the hurt and repressed anger in his voice is obvious. “What really upset me,” he says, “was the way that The Combination was referred to in the media as a Lebanese-Australian film. When a film comes out by a director of Greek heritage, does the media refer to that film as a Greek-Australian film? That kind of labelling just doesn’t help, and it’s not fair. When you’re seen as doing something good, the media will simply refer to you as an Australian. Even though Kostya Tszyu was born in Russia and he could only speak minimal English, he was referred to as Australian, because he was a successful boxer. What does the labelling of The Combination as a Lebanese-Australian film tell young people in this country?”
That is an important topic for George Basha, who has spent a lot of time talking with troubled young people and visiting schools in Sydney’s west since the release of The Combination. “It might not look like it on the surface,” Basha explains, “but what so many of these young people really lack is confidence. And when they’re being told that they don’t belong, and that they’re not really part of society at large – through things like being labelled Lebanese-Australian – that doesn’t help. So much of it is just about allowing them to dream of what they want for their future, and that doesn’t have to mean wanting to be an actor or a director, it can mean dreaming about being a builder or a panel beater or whatever. It’s about inspiring confidence. We’ve had young guys on our films who have gone on to great things. Look at Rahel Romahn; he’s a terrific young actor who’s been great in so many things since featuring in The Combination.”
And will George Basha be nurturing more young talent by making The Combination a trilogy? “We’ll have to see about that,” he laughs good naturedly. “I’ve got quite a few projects on the boil at the moment, with a number of things that I’ve written and that I’m producing. I can’t sit around waiting for someone to give me a job.”
The Combination Redemption is in cinemas now. Click here for our review.