One of the best things cinema can do is actually twofold: it can show us ourselves, and it can also introduce us to people we will never meet and places we will never go, and make us feel like we’ve met those people, been to those places. Both of those connected elements can be filed under representation – while it’s largely considered the phenomenon of seeing ourselves in art and thus feeling seen, the flipside of that is the phenomenon of feeling connected to what we are seeing. The late critic Roger Ebert called cinema an empathy machine, and this is what he was talking about.
Here Out West is as finely tuned an empathy machine as you could hope to find – an anthology film set in Sydney’s western reaches, among the working-class suburbs and immigrant enclaves often simply dismissed as “out west” by inner-city easterners. The film opened the 2021 Sydney Film Festival to great acclaim, and now it celebrates a nationwide cinema release.
Comprised of eight interlinking and occasionally overlapping stories from a varied slate of creatives – including writers Claire Cao, Arka Das, Bina Bhattacharya, Dee Dogan, Vonne Patiag, Tien Tran, Matias Bolla, and Nisrine Amine; and directors Fadia Abboud, Lucy Gaffy, Julie Kalceff, Ana Kokkinos, and Leah Purcell – it follows a number of individual characters, all of them fascinating, but what really emerges is a portrait of a place. Although set in the fictional suburb of Sunnyholt, the film was shot in Blacktown and reflects the lived experiences of the migrant communities, freshly arrived or multi-generational, who reside there. Eight different cultural backgrounds are on display, with dialogue in nine languages: English, Arabic, Bengali, Cantonese, Kurdish, Tagalog, Turkish, Vietnamese and Spanish.
Initially, our focus is an Anglo woman, Nancy (Genevieve Lemon), who kidnaps her daughter’s newborn from the maternity ward before the authorities can place the baby in state care; complicating matters is the fact that she’s babysitting her eight-year-old Lebanese neighbour, Amirah (Mia-Lore Bayeh), who finds herself along for the ride. They encounter a Chilean security guard, Jorge (Christian Ravello), and we spend some time with him, seeing how he is struggling to have a meaningful relationship with his son. Then we’re with three young men, nominally friends: Rashid (Rahel Romahn), Dino (Thuso Lekwape), and Robi (Arka Das). Rashid is threatening to beat the living hell out of Dino for dating his cousin, with Robi caught in the middle, before he’s drawn into the story of mixed race Bengali Indian woman Ashmita (Leah Vandenburg), who is sitting vigil for her dying father. And on it goes.
There’s a hint of Robert Altman’s sprawling multi-narrative ensemble films to the proceedings, and a touch of Richard Linklater’s Slacker in the way the stories are knitted together. But what it really resembles, tonally if not specifically, is Wayne Wang's diptych Smoke and Blue in the Face, which used a Brooklyn tobacconist’s store as an anchor for a number of interconnecting stories from the neighbourhood. Here Out West uses a hospital to much the same effect but is, if anything, more ambitious, engaging with a number of moods and story types as it skips from plot to plot. Occasionally it suffers simply by trying to squeeze so much into its brisk 100 minutes, but not to any great detriment.
For my money, there are two standouts. Generational friction comes to the fore when mother and daughter Winnie (Gabrielle Chan) and Angel (Jing Xuan Chan) work together on the closing night of the family Chinese restaurant. Winnie wants the family to move further out and farm melons, but Angel plans to move to Melbourne with her boyfriend. It’s an insightful look at how familial expectations and our own dreams are so often at odds.
Then there’s the story of Filipino nurse Roxanne (Christine Milo), who works a punishing double shift and interacts with a number of the other characters. In another film Roxanne would be a background character at best, but the focus on her workday struggles reminds us that everyone is carrying their own load, and the denouement of her story is incredibly touching.
Here Out West is a bravura work – honest, authentic, heartfelt and sincere. We often talk about the importance of Australian life being reflected in our screen stories and sometimes that feels like lip service, but this is the finest example of that principle in action that I’ve seen in a long time.
Here Out West opens in Australian cinemas from February 3. You can find where it is playing near you here.