Initially, there was the issue of the title (a reference to slam poetry) and how that sets the scene for the drama as a whole. Sen-Gupta explained that the germ of his project came partly out of a visit to a spoken word event.
For him, it was important not just to see spoken word as the next big craze, but also as a vehicle for the voice of youth and those who are marginalised. At the Bankstown Arts Centre in Sydney’s outer west, a vibrant scene has emerged in which New Australians articulated their anger at the unaccepting status quo. This is why the film starts with the words of the late slam poet Candy Royalle.
“I liked poetry when I was younger, and then I rediscovered slam poetry or spoken word, and I thought it was an interesting way that young people were using it as a low-cost way of getting their views heard,” Sen-Gupta tells us.
“It was a quick and short and cheap way to produce powerful commentary. And it is giving back a voice to young people that had been lost in this world that we live in, where we don’t listen to them and their issues. And I like the word ‘slam’, it’s like a blow to the face, and I want the film to be like that too. Sometimes it is a little aggressive – even unpoetic – but it is slam poetry in its way too.”
One could also argue that the experience of Muslims in Australia is part of a set of global issues about population migrations and lack of integration. This gave the film its wider resonance.
“And that was what made the connection politically to what was happening at that time in the world and in Australia,” adds Sen-Gupta. “And especially with these communities and their young people that were being marginalised by politicians and by police and by the establishment and the media. They were being made into the villains of our society.
“It is a universal story in another way,” he continues. “The Muslim experience connects to other forms of oppression, for example to the black experience in the United States or the South Asian migrant experiences in Britain. And these things, and public opinion, can be exploited by right wing politicians as we have seen in Australia too.”
All this has a personal resonance for Sen-Gupta who moved away from his native India to make films overseas. He studied at film school in France, where he learned about directing, but he also learned about the strains of relocation.
“I felt it was an important story to tell and it connected to my experiences as a migrant with the struggle to assimilate. When I lived and worked in France for example, trying to assimilate into French society and discovering that however much I tried, I would never be part of that society because I wasn’t visually acceptable, as it were. If you are not white you are always an outsider and that is the story of my hero in the film, Tariq. He, unlike his more rebellious sister, is trying to keep his head down and just be part of the majority society. I feel some of this too. I have been displaced in ways. I am not Indian, I am not French, I am not Australian. Actually though, I love people who celebrate their identities.”
Slam is set during the time when ISIS was all over the news – not very long ago at all. It is driven by a concern for how this rebounded on ordinary Australians of Muslim descent. Given the rapidly changing scene in the Middle East, one wonders whether this might make the film seem oddly ‘historical’. Sen-Gupta has thought about this and has more than one element to his answer.
“Well, I did think about that but there are other aspects. The war trauma lives on of course. Also, we still make films about previous wars; about World War II or Vietnam and so on. In my film, it is documenting what did happen, but of course some of this is, unfortunately, still happening. Supposedly ISIS is gone but we don’t actually know. Really, we don’t know what is going to happen.”
By showing that there are principled but non-violent ways for men to respond to provocation, Sen-Gupta dramatises both his hopes for a more tolerant world, and a critique of the macho wellsprings of violence. It is a complex interweaving of the political and the personal.
“A lot of my films have male characters who have lost something, and I examine masculinity through that, if you like. My characters can be less masculine in the traditional sense. They are not brutal or macho or bent on revenge. They try very hard to react in a more sophisticated way. And also, there is a journey there. And there is hope because, in a way, he discovers who he really is and who he should be. He does not want to deny who he is. To do so is often to get lost, and to get lost causes trouble in your mind and that only creates melancholy in our lives.”
Furthermore, this hero’s journey has to be conveyed with minimal dialogue or explicit narration. Sen-Gupta wants to tell the story through cinema.
“A lot of my films don’t work so much on dialogue, it is more in the way I shoot. In my last film [Sunrise], the lead had only a dozen lines. I like actors who can work with that in a deep way, who can act with their eyes and so on. I want players who can give you that intensity. I always say to my actors, “can you say the same thing without saying anything?” I wanted someone very sensitive, someone who enlists our sympathies.”
This was a segue to discussing some vital casting decisions. For the lead, Sen-Gupta went after Adam Bakri who was so empathetic in the foreign arthouse hit Omar. Sen-Gupta knew the Palestinian director Hany Abu Assad who made both Paradise Now and Omar, and he was a link to contacting Bakri.
“I actually told the producers that I wanted this actor who is Palestinian and who could therefore understand the motivations of the character. He lives in New York and also understands what it is to be a migrant. And when I pitched the film to Adam, he really liked the script and agreed. So, actually, I had Adam and Rachael Blake [the Australian actress who plays the police investigator] before I even had funding for the shoot in Australia.”
Slam will get a short theatrical release, but will no doubt go on after that to the content-hungry small screen streaming sites. Sen Gupta believes in the film’s power to endure in one way or another. He clearly feels that its passion will give it that longevity.
“I have hopes. I would like this film to be kept alive. I would also like to think that it takes its place in Australian cinema, and that it challenged some assumptions.”