Falling for Sahara (Australia, 2011)

Falling for Sahara (2011) is a dramatic portrayal of the lives of four young adult African refugees.  There’s MJ, the not so book smart Ethiopian refugee; Ramsy, an orphaned Sudanese refugee who has dreams of excelling at the uniquely Australian contribution to the sporting world, Australian Rules Football; Beniam, the wannabe Ethiopian playboy of the African refugee community; and the eponymous Sahara whose poshed-out accent alludes to her having more fully assimilated to Melbourne from her previous Ethiopian surroundings. Each character has a conundrum that pushes the narrative.  MJ fails to meet the academic expectations his family has for him.  Ramsy finds it difficult to handle the institutional racism that obstructs him from realizing his Footy dreams.  Beniam’s tender masculinity is exposed when his playa ways fail to meet the expectations of his oversized ego.  And Sahara struggles to maintain relations with her family after disobeying the cultural demand that she accept the marriage proposal they have arranged back in Ethiopia. The themes are universal, while also individual, while also multivariate in that they are told within the diverse lenses of various refugee experiences.

This is only the second film I have seen by Vietnamese-Australian director Khoa Do.  (He has made five so far.)  I wasn’t very impressed with the first one I caught, Footy Legends (2006). It had screened at the 25th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival in 2007.  Footy Legends, (in this case, ‘Footy’ refers to rugby, not AFL), seemed too earnest, but teen-marketed comedies that aren’t relying on American Pie gross-outs can feel that way sometimes.  I chalked it up as a film not intended for me.  But in spite of the fact that the intended audiences for this film were clearly Australians, Falling for Sahara totally works for me too, someone living in the land Up Over.

Partially funded by the Melbourne International Film Festival Premiere Fund which secures world premieres of new Australian films for MIFF, Falling for Sahara is a composite of the diverse life experiences that make up the African refugee community in Australia. This diversity is succinctly noted in the dialogue between our three young men when Sahara arrives in the housing project.  As if the line from that classic Pharcyde joint is looping in their heads that ‘she’s the dope-est Ethiopian’, they sit on the stairs and gaze at Sahara as she passes them by.  Part of the banter they do voice entails Beniam’s understanding of their mutual immigration histories.  Turns out Beniam has a misunderstanding of MJ’s immigration timeline and trajectory. This is a nice moment of dialogue that isn’t too expository, yet clearly meant to highlight that each individual African refugee’s experience is impacted by a wide range of variables such as country of origin, ones refugee camp placements, number of years in the country, gender, etc. Director Do is himself a product of a refugee family, although his being the Southeast Asian experience.  (Falling for Sahara is the second film in The Refugee Trilogy that Do has planned, the first film being Mother Fish and the third yet to be announced.)  As Nhi T. Lieu points out in her compelling book The American Dream in Vietnamese (University of Minnesota Press, 2011), the Vietnamese refugee experience was portrayed in the (American) media as a homogeneous experience.  As if trying to refrain from repeating that mis-mediation, Do conveys a more nuanced portrayal of the unique layers of each African refugee subject in his film, and by extension, in Australia.

Director Khoa Do

Khoa Do and his brother Anh are an Australian immigrant success story.  Director Do won 2005’s Young Australian of the Year Award and actor Anh is a well-known comedian in Australia (and the lead in Footy Legends). Yet Director Do does not impose his family’s success upon these characters.  These characters are still on the margins of Australian society.  Ramsy is kept at the perimeter of the footy oval, MJ is unable to negotiate academic success, Beniam finds his Casanova cache isn’t accepted everywhere, and Sahara risks returning to a country to which she no longer feels a primary connection, if she ever felt one.  Director Do’s use of interstitial spaces for much of the dialogue underscores this marginality. Conversations take place underneath freeways, along staircases, and upon rooftops. In the forefront are the specific stories of African refugees. These are kids grappling with respect for the culture that spawned them and the culture that provided them refuge.  They are trying to negotiate a means towards their dreams without losing the self-respect that racism hopes to destroy, be it direct racism, such as the egging they receive early on, or the subtle racism of Ramsy’s Footy tryouts.  (It’s commendable that the Australian Football League – through the Essendon Football Club – took an active role in the film’s production knowing that their variant of Footy doesn’t come off positively in this film.  Essendon Football Club player Andrew Welsh has his acting debut here as Ramsy’s encouraging coach who doesn’t pick up on the racism on the oval.  This film partly becomes a cinematic extension of the Essendon Football Club’s outreach programs with the Flemington Estates of Melbourne where the characters of Falling for Sahara live.)

Falling for Sahara has caused me to recalibrate Khoa Do as a director, not that I let one film determine my complete feelings about his work.  Here, Do demonstrates he is a capable director, deftly addressing social issues by staying away from the didactic and maintaining the entertainment. And the acting of our four major players represents well that awkwardness at the edge of adulthood, particularly MJ.  He might go less praised in such a film, but his struggle mumbling through more than just Australian English is part of what’s so intriguing about his character.  The scene where he tames down his anger at an unjust police system in the cab ride home from the police station is a particular highlight.  You can see the frustration in his face, yet you also know he’s capable of calming that rage when appropriate, such as how he begins a confrontation with the Pakistani cab driver yet eventually guides the conversation to a common Australian denominator, Cricket. He reaches out and makes a connection at a time when he might feel most disconnected from Australia. As a result, Falling for Sahara connects with audiences in the same way, but on a much wider scale.