“Unlikely Travellers” by Michael Noonan – movie review


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.

John Tracey


Filed under art, disability, film

9 responses to ““Unlikely Travellers” by Michael Noonan – movie review

  1. californiablogging

    I am a mom of a child with special needs. I just bawled my eyes out. Your review was so well written and I felt their story through your work. I hope to take my son on a trip one day. I am also working on a documentary of his pain disorder. So I enjoyed your post on many levels.

  2. thank you

    it really is a brilliant movie, I hope you get to see it.

  3. A fantastic movie. John Hart, Michael Noonan, staff and crew worked hard on this project for the best part of a year. All their hard work has certainly paid off with this funny, warts and all movie about people with a disability. Well done.

  4. Stuart Hurley

    Ref “Unlikely Travellers”

    Having seen the film and after meeting Darren & James it is clear that this film was not only an outlet, but a promotion of people with dissabilities.
    This film afforded people without dissabilities the opportunity to meet and share experiences of people, who, in all essence are basically the same.
    We all have needs,wants and desires, this film provided a window of opportunity for both sides to experience a world we rarely see or are prepared to enter.
    After hearing and reading the so called “academics “comments, it is a pity that some people seem to read more into this concept, than there actually is.
    The two films should not be denigrated, but should be celebrated as heart warming stories of the hopes of a group of people seeking to be accepted for what they are.
    Members of society.

    P.S If “Down Under Mystery Tour” is half as good as “Unlikely Travellers” then Darren and James could be in for a new career!!

  5. John Hanley

    I have been completely astonished for several months at the furore whipped up by a pair of cloistered academics towards a really challenging ,& in depth treatment ,of several people who ,on the surface , would appear to not to be as well able to cope with life as “us” supposedly normal people.
    Having seen the movie & had the extremely good fortune to meet most of the cast I have been enchanted at their attitude to life & their courage in confronting life’s problems.
    Most of us outside would think that the two academics would have been better off spending some time in the real world researching the actual subject of this film before doing a “Don Quixote” within their own privilaged domain

  6. Tom Law,

    If you are who I think you are then you too are due for some congratulation.

    Are you the authoritarian tyrant in the movie?

    I am in general an anti authoritarian kind of guy but I was particularly impressed by you in the movie. I was going to write about you in the review, but there is so much to write about it would have gone on forever if I covered everything.

    Tom (or at least the ex SAS officer in the film if I have got the wrong person) was as brave as the others in showing us (the audience) a perspective of his work that was not fluffied up for the camera. If he had treated me like he treated his “buddy” in the movie I would have told him to “piss off”, if not hit him (probably not a good idea to hit a SAS guy).
    But he was the perfect person for the job as was shown by the obvious trust and affection shown by his oppressed victim, who achieved great things as a result of Tom’s (?) ruthless brutality.

    I could never get away with something like that and would never try. But I would be honoured to work in a team with a guy like you.

    Can’t believe I just said that to a militarist!

  7. Tom Law

    Thanks JT, yes i am the Tom in the movie. Thanks for your comments, and also for a well written and balanced review of the movie.

  8. Dr. David A. Jordan

    I offer my unsolicited and unequivocal support to John Hart, Michael Noonan, and most particularly to the individuals with intellectual and associated disabilities who concieved, produced, and participated in this most enjoyable adventure of a film – “Unlikely Travelers”. I have devoted the past 34 years of my professional career to serving individuals with a variety of life challenges and was enthralled when I saw an early edition of the film this past Spring. In stark contrast to the assertions made by Professors Hookham & MacLennan who felt the film demeaned individuals with disabilities, I felt it served as a long-awaited ( and desperatley needed) celebration of their humanity and genuineness. The many disabled citizens which I have shown a copy of the film to here in the US, they both applauded and wept with joy following during and after watching it. One young women with an undiagnosed intellectual disability screamed at the top of her lungs ” we are finally somebody !!”. Intent and motivation are indicators of purpose and in the case of making this film I have no doubt that both were ingenuous. I applaud Misters Hart and Noonan for their bravery and idealism in elevating the dignity and humanity of people with disabilities. We here in the States congratulate you for your work !
    Dr. David A. Jordan
    President & CEO
    Seven Hills Foundation
    Professor / Social Entrepreneur -In- Residence
    Clark University
    Worcester, MA USA

  9. Pingback: “Unlikely Travellers” voted best documentary at IF awards « PARADIGM OZ

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