A handsome young refugee from Afghanistan finds work in a small Australian country town and falls in love with a beautiful local girl in “Molly & Mobarak.” It’s a classic Romeo and Juliet story, but in this warmly humanistic documentary it’s all true and it unfolds before our eyes. At a time when the hardline policies of the Australian government toward refugees is causing divisions in the community, veteran Aussie documaker Tom Zubrycki has come up with one of his most accessible and emotional efforts. In humanizing an Afghani asylum-seeker, Zubrycki is being politically contentious, and that will ensure pros and cons when the film screens theatrically and on national television. Festival screenings overseas should provoke the same kind of warm reaction that greeted the pic at its Sydney film fest world preem.
Twenty-two-year-old Mobarak Tahiri hails from Afghanistan where, during the Taliban era, Hazari people, like him, were persecuted. Mobarak’s family raised enough money to send him to the West, and Mobarak arrived in Australia by boat in 1999, as an illegal immigrant. Under government policy he and some 3,000 other Hazaris were interned pending an investigation into their backgrounds. Mobarak was eventually released into the community in 2001 with a temporary visa.
Meanwhile, in the small town of Young, about four hours by car from Sydney, the local meat-works was expanding its business and, desperately short of workers, began employing Afghani refugees. Mobarak arrived in Young to join fellow refugees, sharing an apartment and taking English lessons organized by local volunteers.
One of these volunteers was Lyn Rule, a single mother with a teenage son and a 25-year-old daughter, Molly. Lyn befriended the amiable Mobarak, and Molly offered to teach him how to drive. From this relationship, love blossomed, at least on Mobarak’s side, though Molly always insisted she had a boyfriend who lived in another town.
Zubrycki, who, for the first time in his career, acts as cameraman as well as director, is very good at fly-on-the-wall filmmaking, and seems to have been in the right place at the right time to chart the progress of the relationship between these two attractive young people. But more than that, he offers insights into the way Mobarak changes after a period of time in Australia. He has Molly dye his hair blonde and he even starts using Aussie slang (though his English remains rather hard to follow, and a greater use of subtitles might have been helpful).
When Molly goes off on a trip to Europe, Mobarak is disconsolate, though Lyn treats him almost as though he were another son. When Molly returns, it seems the romance will be re-kindled, but then a frustrated Mobarak heads off to another town where, according to a letter he writes to Molly, he has found himself an aboriginal girlfriend. The film ends with a stark reminder that Mobarak is likely to be deported by the government. His temporary visa has expired, his fate uncertain.
The film is also a revealing portrait of a small town where opinions are divided between those eager to help assimilate the newcomers, who are frequently confronted by bureaucratic indifference and heartlessness, and those who fall back on racist attitudes. Ironically, Young was the place where, around the turn of the century, riots against Chinese miners occurred, events depicted in the silent film, “The Birth of White Australia” (1928), which was partly filmed in Young, and which is excerpted.
“Molly & Mobarak” screened at the Sydney festival on video, but should transfer well to film if much deserved distribution or fest exposure is in the cards. Technically it’s quite accomplished, with what was presumably a great mass of material cleanly edited by Ray Thomas into a very palatable narrative.