The disappearance of a fearless female Palestinian-Australian slam poet triggers suspense and powerful social and political commentary in “Slam,” an outstanding slow-burn thriller by expat Indian filmmaker Partho Sen-Gupta (“Sunrise”). Starring Palestinian actor Adam Bakri (“Omar,” “Official Secrets”) as the missing woman’s conflicted brother, and leading Aussie performer Rachael Blake as a troubled cop, this gripping tale offers intelligent observations of race, gender, religion, xenophobia and the roles played by police and media in the names of national security and the war on terror. Opening Down Under on Oct. 17 after generating plenty of buzz at Sydney and Melbourne film festivals earlier this year, “Slam” has valuable things to say about the times in which we live and deserves to be seen on a much wider stage.
“Slam” slams into action with Ameena Nasser (Danielle Horvat) staring into the camera. Wearing a headscarf and addressing her speech “to mother,” Ameena delivers a ferocious denunciation of colonization, patriarchy, intolerance and the misuse of power, all the while asserting her right and need as a woman to speak out. At first her delivery has the texture of hard prose before developing a timbre more akin to traditional poetry. Written by the late Australian-Palestinian-Lebanese queer performer Candy Royalle, Ameena’s words provide a knockout opening and serve as an arresting introduction to slam poetry for viewers that may not be familiar with this lively form of expression.
That’s almost it for Horvat’s role in the film. Following an enthusiastic response to her performance at a local community center, Ameena nervously smokes a cigarette outside while a car appears to be following her. From here, Ameena is barely sighted again, leaving viewers to learn about her from family and friends.
Ameena’s mother, Rana (Darina Al Joundi), is immediately alarmed by her daughter’s failure to arrive home or leave a message. Rana’s response is to call her son, Tariq (Bakri), who adopted the name Ricky and moved away from his migrant community to run an inner-city café with Sally (Rebecca Breed), his heavily pregnant Anglo-Australian wife.
Amid news reports of a captured Australian pilot facing execution in Syria, and flashbacks to harrowing events in Tariq’s past, he files a missing persons report with Jo Hendricks (Blake), a police officer returning to duty after a tragedy connected to conflict in the Middle East and the breakdown of her marriage to emotionally destroyed husband Shane (the late Damian Hill, excellent in one of his final roles). Shortly after one of Jo’s smarmy male superiors says, “Muslim girls just don’t go missing,” Ameena’s case is brought to the attention of high-ranking cops who quickly suspect her of fleeing to become a jihadi bride.
Sen-Gupta’s sharp screenplay shows how a climate of fear and a few shreds of social media and CCTV “evidence” can snowball into assumptions that fuel racism and intolerance. Bakri is outstanding as the second-generation migrant whose loyalties and sense of identity are put to the test. With reporters camped outside his house and his own efforts to locate Ameena creating conflict within the Muslim community and exposing casual racism in Sally’s family circle, Tariq is eventually forced to protect himself by publicly denouncing his sister.
Providing a powerful counter-balance to the escalating nightmare around Tariq is Jo’s determination to put media hysteria and pressures from male bosses aside and treat Ameena as a missing person rather than a potential terrorist. Blake excels as the investigator whose initial skepticism and prejudices are challenged and changed by talking to Rana and Ameena’s best friend, Hanan (Abbey Aziz), about their lives and what Ameena was striving to achieve through her angry poetry.
For all its social and political subtext, “Slam” always stays firmly on track as a propulsive and engrossing thriller. Sen-Gupta generates high-level tension and suspense as the mystery deepens en route to a memorable conclusion.
Filmed around the multicultural Bankstown district in Sydney, “Slam” is splendidly served by Bonnie Elliott’s moody widescreen photography and a spiky, strings-based score by Eryck Abecassis. All other technical aspects are right on the money.