The controversial movie “Unlikely Travellers” by Brisbane film maker Michael Noonan had its world premier on Sunday (Aug 12) as part of the Brisbane International Film Festival. The documentary features the lives of a group of people with intellectual disabilities who travel to Egypt as well as their families and support workers.
Up until Sunday’s screening “Unlikely Travellers” has benefited from perhaps the most sensational pre-publicity campaign of any independent documentary ever made in Australia.
Noonan’s academic work at the Queensland University of Technology , including the production of “Unlikely Travellers”, has come under severe public criticism by two academics, Gary MacLennan and John Hookham, who claim his work demeans and exploits people with disabilities. As a result of this criticism MacLennan and Hookham were charged, convicted and suspended without pay for six months for crimes against Q.U.T., This in turn ignited an international media sensation around free speech and censorship which has still not died down.
Noonan’s work has been condemned across the globe, yet until Sunday’s BIFF screening nobody has seen it except a small group of quarreling academics. The anticipation of the release of this film has been electric, further energised by recent news that the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission is investigating QUT’s action against the two suspended academics. – A publicist’s dream!
Those looking for controversy will not be disappointed by “Unlikely Travellers”. It is indeed confronting, morally ambiguous and in many places sexist. Such is the nature of the real lives of real people presented in the documentary.
“Unlikely Travellers” is about adventure. The first half of the movie documents the physical and emotional preparation for the trip to Egypt, the second half focuses on the trip itself and its consequences. This journey is a collective step into the unknown that changed the lives of each of the participants.
Noonan, his crew and camera have been allowed privileged access into the lives of the cast. Inside he finds some of the key issues relating to the rights of people with intellectual disabilities, especially as weighed up against the will of their families and support workers. But Noonan’s film does not make any grand gesture in support of these rights, instead exploring the complexities, contradictions, differing perspectives and needs of all those involved including family and support workers. His interviews with over-protective parents about over-protectiveness is as profound and enlightening as it is contradictory. The families interviewed have been brave and honest in discussing their real family situation, not just detached principles and protocols governing the lives of people with disability.
One of the themes of the movie is sexuality. It is an honest, beautiful and disturbing insight into the unresolved issues of sex, marriage and children from the perspective of the travelers, their families and their support workers. The anxieties of temporarily separated spouses (Nicole left her husband at home while she went to Egypt), holiday romances, fidelity and fickleness are all confronted head on with no neat resolutions. The authority in charge of this project, John Hart from the Spectrum organisation also shares his own challenges as a support worker as to when and if he should intervene in relationships heading in the direction of sexual intimacy. He respects the adulthood and independence of the travelers at the same time as being morally and legally responsible for their well being. Lucky for him the trip only lasted two weeks and the dilemma is handed back to the families.
And then there is the terrible sexism! There are two characters that stand out in this film – James and Darren. These are the two who Noonan is presently working with on a comedy project. Their aptitude for such a project shines brightly in “Unlikely Travellers” as it did with their impromptu speeches after the screening. Darren, 40 and James, 20 develop a friendship which provides much of the comic relief in this documentary. Darren is the ideas man, he knows what he wants (which includes women!) and he has a fair idea how to go about getting it. The more reserved and intellectual James has reached the point in his life where he wants to be independent and is obviously inspired by Darren’s zest for life and mischief. James is willingly drawn into Darren’s grand schemes including moving into a house together to create a barbeque wonderland that will attract women.
One of the scenes singled out by the QUT critics was of James’ figuring that if Darren got a girlfriend then the two could share her. This was well received by the audience who laughed at the statement as well as Darren’s interjection that this might not be possible to arrange. This scene is near the end of the film and the audience has already got two know the two men well. In this context the scene is neither sexist nor offensive but just another insight into complicated perspectives of sexuality, humour and independence.
Darren emerges as the expedition leader as he pursues his quest to find out if there is a trap door underneath the foot of the Sphinx and how Tutankhamen died, if indeed he did die.. Darren’s excitement at proving his brother wrong about how many Sphinxes there are in Egypt was audibly shared by the audience, as was his disappointment at discovering that some people in Egypt may try and rip him off – a truly sad point in the movie.
There are other sad moments such as Stanley’s story of welfare authorities taking away his three children, and then losing his wife because of the pressure of losing the children. His brave attempt at a holiday romance and coming back to earth after the trip is also a brave and honest insight into the life of this particular person with an intellectual disability. For me the saddest part of the movie was Stanley explaining that the authorities had decided it was not appropriate for his children to see him off at the airport or to welcome him home as all the other travelers’ families had.
All the travelers – Nicole, James, Darren, Stanley, Natasha and Carla – have their own unique stories which are portrayed with depth and integrity. It is the intertwining of all the different stories that holds this film together.
Viewing the film has dismissed in my mind the much publicised criticism that Noonan has an exploitative or inappropriate attitude towards disability. Four of the six unlikely travelers spoke after the film, expressing a deep gratitude to Noonan and Spectrum for the experience, as did members of their families speaking from the floor.
Darren took the microphone to the cheers of the audience, a situation that he immediately took advantage of to show his talent as a comic orator, Stanley spoke and gave an update on his continuing struggle to be reunited with his children. James opened the floor to questions and skillfully handled heckling from his mother. Nicole made some insightful comments about the comparative difference of cultures in Egypt and Australia.
MacLennan and Hookham have criticised one scene in “Unlikely Travellers”, but to be fair to them the bulk of their attack is on Noonan’s current work in progress – the “Down Under Mystery Tour”with Darren and James. Again nobody in the world has seen this except the same small group of quarreling academics. Supporters of the suspended academics handed out leaflets at Sunday’s screening claiming they were not talking about “Unlikely Travellers” as an example of “misanthropic and amoral trash”, only the “Down Under Mystery Tour”. This ongoing criticism is sure to inflame the pre-publicity of “Down Under Mystery Tour” as with “Unlikely Travellers”. Noonan sure is lucky with publicity!
I look forward to seeing how Noonan tackles comedy in his next project. I also look forward to laughing at the antics of Darren and James, I predict we will see a lot more of these two movie stars in the future.