Interview with Tom Zubrycki on Temple of Dreams

Temple of Dreams is Tom’s documentary on Muslim youth

Attempts to close down a youth centre in Sydney’s south-west is not the kind of news that attracts headlines, but the threatened closure was quietly noted in the Sydney and national press over recent months. Efforts by a group of young Muslims to keep the centre open is, on the other hand, the subject of a new film by widely-respected documentary maker Tom Zubrycki.

This is a filmmaker with the nose of a journalist, who has had a way over the years of locating himself inside a significant story as it unfolds, be it an Afghani in love with a local during controversy over refugees in the community (Molly and Mobarak), the final year of the campaign to secure independence for East Timor (The Diplomat) or a strike in a Wollongong coalmine (Kemira: Diary of a Strike).

The building in question is an old masonic temple that stands tall in the industrial suburb of Lidcombe. A venerable old building that once heard the rituals of freemasons and now hears the sounds of weight-lifters, boxers and men working out.

A group of young Sydney Muslims obtained a lease for the old temple and converted it into a youth centre that began operating early last year. It has a boxing gym, where real champions train alongside aspirants, and a fitness gym, to encourage young men to train, look after themselves and maintain a disciplined regimen. Auburn Council has however deemed the use of the former masonic hall illegal and threatened it with closure.

Zubrycki had decided that he would make the Lebanese Muslim community the subject of his next film when he came across a community worker called Fadi Rahman in the Sunday papers. He drove to Lidcombe to find him, visited the centre, while community tensions elsewhere came to a head on a Sydney beachfront. ‘A week later the Cronulla riots broke (and) Fadi was all over the media.’ People were looking to Fadi for answers after he’d played a prominent role as a peacebroker.

In an interview with Tom Zubrycki during the Sydney Film Festival where Temple of Dreams premiered, I heard that Zubrycki hadn’t found Fadi particularly open at first, understandably perhaps. They ‘circled around each other a bit’ then. Like another outgoing media performer, Zubrycki’s former subject Jose Ramos-Horta, Fadi found it hard to be personal. The public persona sits more comfortably.

What appealed to Zubrycki about Fadi was that he was really ‘out there.’ ‘Fadi had leadership skills and a strong mandate from a broad spectrum of people.’

Zubrycki even started working out in the fitness centre himself – ‘and every now and then (I) would do a bit of filming’. Moreover he had a ‘calling card’, the film Billal made in 1996, which documented the tragic aftermath of a hit-and-run accident which had left a young Lebanese Muslim seriously injured.

When some young female volunteers whom Fadi had recruited to help him realise his plans appeared at the centre, that clinched it for the filmmaker. ‘They were really such fabulous characters. They accepted me immediately, and once that happened I was away.’

These three attractive young women in the film – Zouhour, Alyah and Amna – all in hijab, university-educated and professional, are a revelation. A trio of warm, assertive personalities who might be any group of young Australian women. Without their voluntary help, it is hard to imagine how the Muslim youth conference Fadi organised could have ever got up.

At one point in the film, tempers fray as the women argue over their tasks, while Fadi sits in silence as they trade angry accusations and counter-accusations across the room until he snaps, ‘Please, we need to work together as a team…a goddam team…Isn’t it enough that the whole world is against us…?’

Temple of Dreams is a generous and heartfelt film that yearns for goodwill between Muslims and the rest of the community, the work of a filmmaker deeply committed to the multicultural ethic.

Temple of Dreams premiered at the Sydney Film Festival and earned an extra screening due to popular demand. The session I attended included a Q&A with the filmmaker and his main cast, among whom Fadi in particular must have felt buoyed by the warmth of the audience response.

There were a few searching questions too, touching on multiculturalism and the thoughts of Muslim youth in general. I think the film invites other questions too: the gym is useful, but what about creating opportunities for trade, literacy, numeracy and IT skills-training for young Muslims? How is the strength and fitness developed at the centre expressed in society generally?

In an encouraging development, the centre which is due to close by the end of July has a reprieve. According to Zubrycki, Auburn Council has undertaken to find property it owns to offer to lease as new premises.

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