(I) Scene: Opening Scene

In the opening scene of the film, Colour Bars, by Mahmoud Yekta (1997), we assume the son’s point of view and follow along the telegraph lines with him:

Dad where are we going?The boy questions the father who answers in Farsi. Even though the conversation is, to some extent unsettling, a sharing of foreignness between the boy and the parent, ‘we’ the audience can understand it. The conversation has a familiarity for us:

What’s location?Am I Iranian?

What’s technically?

Then I am technically Australian!

This conversation between a son and his father, the boy asking questions, the father answering, establishes a relationship where communication may be uncertain and where living with that uncertainty is accepted.

Where are these wires going?My research began with an interest in the Auburn Mosque as a social ecological case- study for undergraduate students (Auburn being a ‘middle ring’ western suburb of Sydney). I wondered how this building got through the council’s approval process. How did this community of Muslims organise themselves to carry through the necessary procedures? What did they learn? How did they negotiate with the wider community? Who designed the mosque? What about planning and building regulations and approval? Who uses it? These were some of the questions that interested me as a social ecologist; they seemed to have such a contemporary urgency. I was curious not in some objective academic way entirely, but more so as a person whose cultural space was being radically altered by an obviously foreign cultural phenomenon. The curiosity was more about how would this alter my ‘being in my place’? What would my place be like now? In what ways will this change affect my values? These are the values of a middle-aged Australian man whose distant ancestors migrated to this place from the British Isles. I have reaped the bounty of twentieth- century affluence; I am a Protestant in my most basic faith; and I live within the security of these cultural realities.

Every form of research and theorising is shot through with values. Theorising about some aspect of the migrant’s experience, the nature of home or the value of a multicultural society is already related to the very lives of those doing the research. A phenomenological attitude to this sort of research would require one to be constantly raising the questions: What is it like to be a migrant? What is it like to have migrants move into your community? What is it like to live in a multicultural society? What is a home like in a multicultural community?

When I went to Auburn to begin my research, I realised how strange it felt. I certainly did not ‘feel at home’.

I feel outnumbered yes, and I definitely don’t have anything against them, I just feel that it’s, I can remember, like coming to Auburn from Birrong, like to shop and it use to be really nice and now I just feel like a tourist, like when you walk up the street it’s yes, it’s like its happened in about fifteen years or so and it just seems to have happened really quickly (Amber, Anglo-Australian interviewee, in Yekta (1997)). My first walk down the main street of Auburn was with Mahmoud, an Iranian working as a Multicultural Community Arts Officer for the Auburn Community Development Network. He took me for coffee to the Pantheon Cafe where we had Turkish coffee and sweet cakes. “Did I feel at home?” Mahmoud asked me. “No,” I replied: I, too, felt like a tourist.

What did this mean? Was it that I could not recognise myself in this place, in a suburb that is seventy percent non-English-speaking. My past needed to find a new coherence; it needs to be retold with characters from this radical plurality. This retelling revolves around a personal journey; it is I who tells the story to myself. My view of this story will be seen through the ‘eyes’ of my values, inevitably historical, academic, experiential, Protestant, and masculine. The myths and stories of migration and travel for each of the people with whom I have become associated in Auburn will be translated into something entirely different.

(II) Scene: Chinese Boy & Rock Group

In this film, the lives of some people living around Auburn are temporarily brought together in Mahmoud’s narrative. We only sometimes meet face-to-face with the speaking subject, but the images and the commentary reflect the world in which the speaker lives. These are not just random images. There is an intention implied through the choice of music, image, and scene, the voice-over, and the camera angle. At times the film is oblique, even alienating in a neo-Brechtian way, whereby the narrative is ‘made strange’. This device gives us information about the characters’ lives in unorthodox ways – the classic surrealist technique of unsettling comfortable perceptions. Phenomena occur tangentially, but they structure a meaning in which the multicultural experience is an exchange experience. This film attempts to keep ‘you’ in the experience and not free to escape back into the audience.

(III) Scene: Greek Girl & Father

In choosing to make ‘something’ available for discussion is to make of it an object. In this objectification, one may also assume to speak on behalf of others. What would this research project look like if it refused this role of ‘surveillance’? What would it look like if, for example, the enquiry emphasizes the participation of those who are studied and they, in turn, make the decisions about the study format and data analysis? Ideally, it should be a collaborative model of research. Yet collaboration is never ‘equal’ in intent or effort. This is because it remains my research and I speak in the modes of intellectual discourse. Therefore, the power present in this collaboration will be a shifting network of alliances which inevitably will be fractured. What sort of discourse will my research accept? What will its general ‘politics of truth’ be?

Over coffee, Mahmoud and I exchange ideas about what we are doing in our different projects. Whose ‘truth’ inspires the work? Mahmoud says:

If I want a particular idea to come across in my work and I can’t get it from the interviews, then I’ll invent it. My work is always a fiction; it makes no claim on the truth of the individual’s experience. For example, in Colour Bars, when the Chinese guy is telling about the time that he is busking and the drunk starts abusing him and Asians in general on the train, well, the Chinese guy said that normally he’d just go quiet, look out the window or something, but I made him answer back in the film.An image of our multicultural society can never be objectified. It is not possible to lay claim to a transcendent notion that would contradict the very image it was supposed to represent. One cannot make an image of a reality so diverse and large and yet do justice to all its aspects. The image at best will always be incomplete, ongoing, and although, while it cannot be described, it can be evoked. There is no grand narrative that can credibly hold us together as conservative politicians might imagine nor is it possible to think of difference from the perspective of an undifferentiated host culture. Difference has entered the host culture and, in the same way that contemporary scientific theorists now understand, there is no neutral point of observation. So, too, we only know our multicultural society from our individual perspectives. While this understanding is unavoidable, there is confusion about how we are to live in our ‘comfortable and relaxed’ Australia. More and more, we see ourselves surrounded by a vast, almost continuous field of variously intended and diversely constructed realities which cannot be ordered objectively. What are the conventions of interpretation that accommodate situations at once fluid, plural, decentred, and untidy?

At the moment, Anglo-Australian culture is caught in a dilemma. One horn of the dilemma is to identify itself with multiculturalism, not so much as a particular culture within it, but rather as an identification with the whole of multiculturalism – as author, as overseer, and as the central presence within it. It is the paradox of a culture attempting to retain its dominance by publicly disavowing it. The other horn of the dilemma is to react against multiculturalism as a whole. The issue here, as McKenzie Wark (1997: 261) has noted, is that multiculturalism is a bureaucratic invention and what is often not understood is that the idea of ‘Anglo’ is also an invention. The Anglo culture was made in the process of establishing multicultural principles in order to deal with all the various constituencies. If we can begin to tell singular stories about place, events, institutions and the many different inheritances that we share, then we may begin to accommodate and interpret ourselves differently.

By telling stories about our place in this modern world, the stories of institutions, of individuals, and of communities, we may be able to shift our thinking to the acceptance of these ‘diversely constructed realities’. Or, indeed, we may wish to refuse them But the significance of these stories has something to do with telling of the conflicts, the insights, and the joys that remain part of the responsibility of this multicultural project.

(IV) Scene: Car to Cronulla

Many of the stories are just ordinary stories. They work as bridges between the different groups in our society: “Oh, they are just like us!” But a multicultural society is strange and not everyone ‘knows’ about it. Many of us do not want to know about this community; we never go ‘there’ or we avert our eyes; but mostly we just do not notice. The film attempts to confront this; but who is watching? Has our popular consumption of Neighbours accomplished a kind of narrowing of culture, identity and story?

The way my parents have brought me up is in a typical, normal Australian way. They haven’t imposed any cultural beliefs or anything like that. The background is there, if I want it. I have a lot of friends: they’re Italian, Greek, Lebanese, all sorts of backgrounds really. I remember, I have this Australian friend. He said, “Hey Chin, you’re an Ozzie trapped in a Nip’s body.”Mahmoud’s narrative is developed as stories of social tensions among young people making friends, respecting difference, gender tensions, racial tensions, and the commonality of these experiences. For example:

dealing with teachers who see you’ve got an ethnic surname; ethnic surname, ethnic surname, ethnic surname and not all ethnics get along: my Turkish father hates the Greeks.In these ordinary stories about relating to parents, about time and space, about honesty and autonomy, about dealing with the authority of police and teachers and of dealing with the ‘big’ world of shop-keepers and relatives, there is a familiarity and, through it all, this difference: being a ‘wog’.

I don’t really think there are two worlds. It’s only when I look in the mirror, or speak to my grandparents, then I realise the difference. I look different, otherwise I’m typically normal.

(V) Double Dialogue: Art and Thesis

So what might a double dialogue mean here? Who is party to this exchange, this conversation, this work in progress? How do I work as an artist? Can there be a passage between the art and the thesis, each as separate but in relationship?

“Sabotage the distance between the self and other” was advice from a supervisor. “There is the ‘self’ and the‘other’ and the other is ‘thesis’”! Out of what will the thesis emerge? In my research, the thesis will exist in the space that separates art and thesis.

More advice from the supervisor:

You say you need more help. We should talk about this. The dilemma of writing a thesis and not really wanting to write what a thesis is most commonly expected to be will not go away. There are certainly issues about how you could organise or re-organise the writing you have done so far in order to see what kind of shapes it could make as a thesis. I could help with that. But first, what about a more holistic approach? A review of the writing so far. I liked the ideas we came up with when we met in Auburn. We talked of the approach of a documentary filmmaker going into ‘the specific’ and hoping to elicit some meaning which ‘works’ on a larger scale.Building a theory is what is at stake in a thesis. My supervisor wrote to me again:

In conversation with the various people in Auburn, certain kinds of intelligence are produced, about language, about space (freedom and confinement and containment), about the instability of cultural worlds, about strangeness. These are ‘findings’ surely? But how are you to account for your methodology? By thievery, trickery, cunning and magic. What methodology is going to allow commerce and trade in the imagination? Only the hermetic one!! Perhaps you should be guided by theory instead! But you want to play dangerously and be guided by writing, generated by conversation. So we must watch for where this process is tracking down knowledge. A thesis must ‘make a contribution to knowledge’. And what kind of knowledge is meant by that?Indeed, what methodology is going to allow commerce and trade in the imagination?

Mahmoud could never abide the slow evolution of a thesis. There is a commonality among all recent settlers he suggests. They are always looking to the future; they are never satisfied. The weather, God, the landlord, the neighbour, all have to deliver the future. Deliver to us now! This desire for a future might satisfy, but might also turn into greed, a future of plenty, ‘a better future’ (a Lotto future). Mahmoud thinks that most migrants are seeking this better future and are quite prepared to give up ‘their past’ to secure it. The commonality in all migration over the last two hundred years is the future. How does one identify a cultural continuity that emerges out of a future? The future, however, is often lived as if it were the past.

(VI) Scene: Girl Talking about Greeks

The film takes as content the lived experience of a number of young people from various ethnic backgrounds, all of whom think of Auburn as home. The film uses the devices of interview, character and situation development, theatrical and filmic direction, narrative theory, and filmic metaphor. It is language-centred (the language of metaphor, film as text, and the narrative structures therein). The epistemology of experience and perception have moved to make space for an epistemology of language and text. The main thrust of this shift is the realisation that lived experience is saturated with language.

I made a comment to my dad which he didn’t like too much. He’s sixty and he came out here when he was twenty, and I said, “You’ve been here for two-thirds of your life, you’re more Australian than Greek” and that didn’t go down so well. You know something, though, I told him that in Greek.(VII) Car Shoot & Trip to Cronulla

To introduce the story of territory, style, attitude, and difference, Mahmoud uses the device of shooting from a motor car with negative film. The story unfolds from the back seat and is told by a Lebanese boy. The negative film sequence: Is it just playfulness? Does Mahmoud want to ‘make strange’ this familiar journey to the beach? Does he literally want to give the scene a negative connotation?

It is a stereotypical conflict about ‘westies’ coming down to Cronulla or Bondi and into the ‘surfie world’ – ‘Skippy territory’. A fight is described, born out of racial slurs, “wogs” and “skips”, “you fuckin’ wogs”, and the like. The police come and, as the story would have it, take the side of the ‘skips’. The filmic metaphor of negative image suggests the obvious: the negative implication of these conflicts and an inversion of accepted behaviour. There is also a kind of shallowness in the story; the negative footage has a transparent quality.

It is phenomenological in the way Van Manen (1990: 41) speaks of it such that “when one orients to a phenomenon one should approach this experience with a certain interest. The experience must be recalled in such a way that we recognise this description as a possible experience, and, as such, a possible interpretation”.

(VIII) How Does the Double Dialogue Work for Me?

Am I an artist just playing at being an academic or am I an academic just playing at being an artist? When Alice stepped through the looking glass, she entered the realm of imagination. Looking at oneself can be a genuine source of reflection, but Alice was not content simply to see herself. She wondered what the world on the other side of the glass was like. In pretending, in imagining, the solid glass gave way and Alice was in that world on the other side of things.

Is this not what Helen Demidenko did? The ‘Demidenko effect’. If I had invented Mahmoud, an ethnic filmmaker, would it not make it easier to thieve and to use trickery, cunning and magic. If Mahmoud were my alter ego, my Helen Darville, my Iraqi refugee, would I not have sabotaged the distance between self and the other?

I lived in this town, it is called Najaf, but the government in Iraq hate the people in this town because their Islam is different. Islam is divided into two groups, Suni and Shiites, but it is more than this, and in Iraq some people they put in prison, they hold some people, killed some people. When the uprising happen after the Gulf War, the people don’t agree with Saddam to invade Kuwait so the people make uprising in Iraq. The government in Iraq killed some people, put some people in the prison and some people escape (Ali, an Iraqi interviewee, in Yekta (1996)).In one’s imagination, it is possible to over-step the limits; in one’s imagination, there are no restrictions, one is not confined to the literal. Here one can intensify the fantasy, because the imagination works in the realm of the poetic, the ‘what if I did this’ space.

In my ‘double dialogue’, I have tried to structure an inquiry into ethnicity. I want to share with you the possibility, no, indeed, the great validity of thievery, trickery, cunning and magic as ways that artists work with ‘the material’, that is, ways of working imaginatively in the space that separates.



[Anonymous] Supervisor’s Comments on Brendon Stewart “Enjoying the Difference”, Unpublished Ph.D. Thesis (Sydney: University of Western Sydney – Hawkesbury Campus, 1997).Van Manen, Max (1990) Researching the Lived Experience (New York: The State Library of New York).

Wark, Mackenzie (1997) The Virtual Republic (Sydney: Allen & Unwin).

Yekta, Mahmoud (1997) Colour Bars (Sydney: Backyard Films).