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Entering the familial web

Dan Edwards

John, Fahimeh, Fahimeh's Story John, Fahimeh, Fahimeh's Story
Refugees have been a hot topic for Australian documentary makers over the past half decade, with recent notable examples including Tom Zubrycki’s Molly and Mobarak (2003) and Clara Law’s Letters to Ali (2004, RT64, p20). Given our draconian detention laws, it is not surprising that most of these films have focused on the plight of incarcerated asylum seekers or those enjoying the precarious ‘freedom’ of temporary protection visas. Faramarz K-Rahber’s award winning Fahimeh’s Story takes a slightly different tack, focusing on the 47 year old Iranian woman of the film’s title, who fled her comfortable middle class Tehran existence to escape a desperately unhappy marriage. As Fahimeh puts it: “Everyone saw what I had on the outside, nobody saw the unhappiness on the inside.” She arrived in Brisbane with 2 sons and obtained a divorce, only to fall in love and marry John, a 77 year old white Australian ex-soldier she met at a bus stop. The film begins soon after Fahimeh and John’s first meeting and traces their relationship across the course of a year.

Although largely shot in observational style, K-Rahber resists the temptation to leave himself out of the story. Fahimeh and her family frequently glance at the camera, sometimes in embarrassment, sometimes with sly grins, and the filmmaker often questions them from behind the lens. He positions himself in the story from the beginning, telling us in voiceover that he met Fahimeh through one of her sons, became fascinated with her tale and decided to make a documentary. Rather than any pretence at objective depiction of the situation, the finished work comes across very much as K-Rahber’s experience of becoming increasingly entangled in the emotional web of Fahimeh’s family.

This impression is reinforced by the director’s refusal to hone in on one aspect of the multi-faceted situation, following the strands of the family web in a loose manner that allows all the ambiguities and intricacies of familial relations to play out over the film’s 83 minutes. Fahimeh and her sons are refugees making their way in a foreign land, but K-Rahber never reduces them to stereotypes or symbols.

Like Fahimeh’s sons, many viewers would undoubtedly be dubious about her relationship with John when it is introduced. Initially he comes across as a vague and somewhat doddering old man who appears to have little understanding of what he’s got himself into. Appearances are deceiving, however, and John gradually emerges as the film’s most intriguing figure. He has a keen interest in leftist politics and we’re given the impression that as a younger man he was involved in the labour movement. At one point, he and Fahimeh go on a march to Villawood Detention Centre, protesting the imprisonment of refugees.

John also has a 30 year old son who cuts a tragically pathetic figure, forever unemployed, depressed and constantly returning to his father for handouts. At times John is driven to distraction by his son’s inability to look after himself. But it’s his own actions and attitudes that make John so intriguing. Despite his good-natured demeanour and salt-of-the-earth air, he becomes an increasingly enigmatic figure, his motivations more and more difficult to fathom. He seems to genuinely love Fahimeh and goes to extraordinary lengths to please her, including converting to Islam. At the same time, he spends prolonged periods away from her living in his own home, and by the film’s end is spending most of his time alone.

John’s affable indeterminacy is nicely counter-balanced by the straight-talking attitudes of Fahimeh’s sons. As teenage boys harbouring healthy doses of resentment towards their Iranian father, while also negotiating a foreign culture and coming to terms with a 77 year old ‘step dad’, they are the most volatile of the film’s subjects. The elder son is deeply alienated from the rest of the family and is living in Sydney at the beginning of the film. Even when he returns to Brisbane, he seems to have little contact with his mother and refuses to meet John, despite earlier cautiously endorsing his mother’s right to choose whoever she wants as a partner. He becomes increasingly bitter in interviews, glaring at the camera with a palpable anger. K-Rahber offers us tantalising glimpses of this boy’s views and daily life, but remains frustratingly distant from the details of his situation, giving us few clues about the precise source of his antagonism.

In contrast, Fahimeh’s younger son appears throughout, and despite being clearly suspicious of John, tries to help his mother and to tolerate the older man’s presence. His animated comments to camera when away from his mother provide some of the film’s funniest moments, as he expresses frank amazement that his Mum “actually seems to like John!”

Oddly enough, although Fahimeh exudes energy and a vivacious charisma, she is the film’s least interesting figure. Which isn’t to say we don’t feel sympathy; our impression of her simply doesn’t develop beyond that conveyed in the opening minutes. It’s hard to judge whether this is a failing on K-Rahber’s part, or if Fahimeh is simply more straightforward than the rest of her family.

K-Rahber’s film is quite different in tone to the sense of outrage generated by Clara Law’s Letters to Ali, or lesser-known works such as Seeking Asylum (Mike Piper, 2002), Out of Fear (Bettina Frankham, 2003) and Through the Wire (Pip Starr, 2004). At a screening of Letters to Ali before last year’s election, I wondered where the refugee ‘genre’ could go if John Howard was returned to power. Was the anger of our documentary-makers having any impact and could the rage be maintained if the Coalition won yet again? Perhaps it is important to simply keep bearing witness to the atrocities being perpetrated by this government and endorsed by many Australians, even if these films don’t seem to be having any political effect. K-Rahber’s documentary also indicates that refugee stories can provide a vehicle for examining broader issues.

Although titled Fahimeh’s Story, the work is really a snapshot of the social, racial, cultural, class and generational tensions that run through contemporary Australian society. Representing the full range of refugee experience is as essential as protesting asylum seekers’ arbitrary imprisonment. Fahimeh’s Story is a political film not because it offers a didactic or polemical position on refugees or race, or because it attacks specific government policy. Fahimeh arrives on an aeroplane and never has to endure the horror of detention. The film instead shines a light on the infinite complexities of familial and emotional relationships, in the process undermining the essentialist, one-dimensional, homogenising discourse around family and the notion of what constitutes “Australianness” that currently dominates our public and political spheres. In other words, K-Rahber textures Fahimeh’s story with the shades of grey that Howard’s vision of Australia erases.

Fahimeh’s Story, director Faramarz K-Rahber; producers Ian Lang, Grigor Axel, 2004

Fahimeh’s Story will screen as part of the SBS Independent Signature Works Festival, Western Australian Museum, Fremantle, WA, Feb 26, and will be broadcast on SBS later in 2005.

RealTime issue #65 Feb-March 2005 pg. 23

© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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