Experimental Reviews

Home: A Meditation on Belonging (2020) – 4 stars

Director: Arman S. Haghi

Cast: Jessica Steed, Saki Itoh, Leslie Celis, Kate Bond, Robert Sek

Running time: 9mins

Moments of liberation are often presented as a crystalised instance of clarity in cinema. Be they figurative or literal, these moments are all too often a simple sensation of severance with an unhappy past, and the notion of a clean-slate for the future, providing the audience with a pleasant, convenient brand of closure as they exit the theatre.

Sadly, however, the reality of the matter is that liberation rarely treats those seeking it so kindly. The process of extracting yourself from a toxic or neglectful environment is inevitably a physically, psychologically and emotionally draining experience. The thing is, as painful as it is, it is also a necessary struggle to face up to; and here in lies the problem.

The instant closure offered by a feel-good ending has historically been an easier sell to audiences than the idea a character could survive, escape, rebuild their lives – but still have to deal with the scars of that struggle after. It is therefore more common in cinema that you will see an Andy Dufresne enjoying life on a secluded beach at the end of The Shawshank Redemption, than Nada and Frank’s sudden casting off a lifetime of ideological lies to embrace an even more disturbing truth in They Live.

One of the most commendable things about Arman S. Haghi’s experimental documentary Home: A Meditation on Belonging is that it manages to strike a fine balance between these two positions. A collection of brief interviews with migrants and survivors various forms of abuse who are now looking to build new lives in Australia, the film acknowledges the residual pain which still torments its subjects, but also manages to suggest that there are increasing signs the toll liberation has taken on them is, or will be worth it – pointing toward a hopeful future.

Kate Bond, the chief interviewee, encapsulates this. Bond alludes to having escaped a life of abuse far away from where she is now – judging from her accent, somewhere in the UK – and that she felt the environment she was raised in could “only teach you what it has available,” meaning her particular process of healing needed to take place in a new environment. The distance has allowed her to “unravel” her past trauma, and as she approaches “the end of the thread” despite the distress she has still experienced, she can dare to wonder, “Maybe I will find home.”

This poignant conclusion shows that Bond’s recovery is still a work in progress, and it isn’t an easy journey to undertake – but there is genuine hope that it will be for something; that it could leave her in a better place than when she began. It is a moment which is underlined by a powerful blend of technical filmmaking and human compassion, which elevate the testimonial into something incredibly moving.

An unseen interviewer finally breaks his silence to audibly interact with Bond, asking for clarification that there is “some hope then?” She responds that if there were none, she “wouldn’t be here,” before choking up with emotion. The soft synth in the background drops into silence, and for a moment which seemingly lasts a lifetime, we are left with nothing to guide us on how to feel except for the raw emotion caught on camera. The interviewer finally breaks the silence to say “Thank you for being here then.”

It’s not often that I think we need to hear the voice of the person asking the questions in a documentary – just as is the case for the majority of this film – but he chooses his moment to appear so perfectly, injecting a much-needed sense of compassion into a particularly emotional moment. It’s hard to know when to take the leap and put yourself into a film like this, not wanting to take focus away from the piece’s true subject, but at the same time not wanting to come across as some exploitative true crime show where a victim’s family weeps un-consoled for five minutes. The way this is pulled off in Home is perfect though – and the warmth and sense of solidarity between the two humans is beautifully complimented moments after by the haunting violin of Robert Sek, as the credits begin to roll.

Sek has spent the duration of the film playing a composition by Alex J. Steed (who scored the film), himself with a bitter-sweet combination of regret, nostalgia and joy etched across his face, giving a remarkable interview without words in his own right. Haghi again deserves plaudits for having managed to coax such an affecting outpouring from his subject. Through his the mournful moments of his piece through to its hopeful final crescendo, we are invited to imagine a hard past for him, as well as a difficult search to belong somewhere new, and share the belief that he may ultimately find it. Without knowing Sek’s history in any detail, it would be wrong to comment further, but the themes his performance conjures up are ones which many immigrants, survivors of abuse or exploitation looking to build new lives will be acquainted with.

For a meditation on concepts of home and belonging, however, there are some notable oversights here. While a title card in the film’s end credits acknowledges “the Traditional Custodians of the lands on which this film was made,” it does not necessarily feel like enough to excuse having produced a film in Australia on these themes and not attempted to factor in the experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have experienced significant exclusion from Australian society for centuries – and while this is less overtly violent in the modern day, it is a process which continues to be enforced by economic and political life. At the same time, many non-Indigenous Australians have not had the opportunity to learn about the cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, something which contributes to a disparity between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous Australians that persists today.

The thing is, according to CommonGround.org, an ‘Acknowledgement of Country’ as seen at the end of Home is something designed to help highlight the lives of Indigenous People at the commencement of an event, such as a meeting, speech or formal occasion. That might cut the mustard in those contexts, but appearing at the end of a film called Home: A Meditation on Belonging feels like an after-thought, cobbled on when the filmmakers realised the film could potentially be seen as excluding one of Australian society’s most oppressed groups.

Worse still, however, it feels like a missed opportunity; managing to factor something more on Indigenous People in a film covering concepts of ‘home’, ‘belonging’ and trauma could have served as a major opportunity to educate non-Indigenous Australians about their lives, and continuing alienation on the land they have called home for over 50,000 years. There is certainly a future project in that, and Haghi and his team certainly possess the emotional nous and technical ability to tackle it, should they feel up for the task.

Home: A Meditation on Belonging is a wonderful piece of filmmaking; it has technical prowess, a meaningful message, and heart. It is hurt less by what it is than what it isn’t – and had it managed to find a way to allow for a deeper ideological examination of what ‘home’ means, including the experiences of Australia’s Indigenous People, it would have received a five-star review. A four-star rating is hardly something to be sniffed at – but if Arman S. Haghi and his team hope to avoid peaking with this project, it is considerations like this which will help them produce something perfectly rounded, and truly ground-breaking.

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