The heart of Australia's refugee trauma

May 3, 2020
Hugo Weaving and Andrew Luri experiencing the healing quality of music in Hearts and Bones
Dan Fisher (Hugo Weaving) and Sebastian Aman (Andrew Luri) experiencing the healing quality of music in 'Hearts and Bones'.

Hearts and Bones
Written by Ben Lawrence and Beatrix Christian, directed by Ben Lawrence
Starring Hugo Weaving, Andrew Luri, Hayley McElhinney, Bolude Watson
Streaming on on all major digital platforms, May 6.

Hearts and Bones is a "passion project" of Ben Lawrence. It began life when the writer/director saw a photo in a war photography exhibition of a terrified African man at the moment of his execution, staring stricken into the camera.

Lawrence began wondering about who the victim was, who was holding the gun to his head, who took the photo and what effect it had on the photographer. From that premise comes this film of the interactions of the refugee experience and the Western "gaze".

The film, set in Sydney, revolves around a PTSD-afflicted war photographer, Dan Fisher (Hugo Weaving), and a South Sudanese refugee, Sebastian Aman (Andrew Luri).

What initially draws the photographer and the refugee together is a photograph of a massacre in Sebastian’s home village, marked for inclusion in an upcoming exhibition. An unlikely friendship develops between the two men that slowly extends to their partners, Josie (Hayley McElhinney) and Anishka (Bolude Watson).

At the heart of the film is the compassionate portrayal of the refugee experience that empowers and dignifies, without romanticising the trauma and struggle. Underlying it is the shared humanity of the characters through their stories of grief and loss.

The film quietly contrasts the relative privilege of white Australians with the unending toil and insecurity of recently-arrived refugees, while emphasising their connection through the common aspects of their lives.

The narrative is of the four characters’ secrets, traumas and desires, several of which are paralleled in the others’ lives. Contrasts and comparisons are subtly drawn, such as the aspiration to renovate an inner-city warehouse into a trendy pad and the drive to renovate a wreck of a house in a distant suburb to secure a foothold in Australia.

The unravelling of a long-guarded secret and the reactions of the four, from their different standpoints, form the dramatic tension.

Hayley McElhinney says of the film that “everyone is trying to do their best in this story and it’s not necessarily the right thing to do.”

Throughout all this, Weaving’s demonstration of the effects of PTSD is truly unnerving. He is a great actor and he gives it all he has.

Luri is a newcomer to acting. He was a truck driver when he was talent-spotted by Lawrence.

In the casting session, Lawrence simply got Luri to talk about himself and his journey from South Sudan to Australia. It was “the gentleness and the confidence and the stillness with which he composed himself” that won him the role, Lawrence said.

The film’s movement towards healing is symbolised in a refugee acappella choir, with real choir members shown, not actors performing. Their music is transformative.

Hearts and Bones is politically astute and humanely sensitive, to be appreciated on multiple levels.

[The trailer can be viewed here.]

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