What Cedar Boys also shows us

27 August 2009

Written by: Lawrie Zion

All decent film reviewers in this country should know that below the surface of any straightforward narrative lies an equally vital subplot. Yet the commentary on Serhat Caradee’s debut feature has exclusively treated the issue of racism, failing to recognise that Cedar Boys reminds us of a second awful truth about our culture – Australia is becoming increasingly classist.

Cedar Boys is the story of three Lebanese youngsters in Sydney’s western suburbs dreaming of money, status and “hot chicks”. After finding a stash of ecstasy tablets the main character, Tarek (Les Chantery), and his friends deal their way up the social ladder, on to the guest lists of the most exclusive clubs and into the pants of the prettiest girls.

But wanting to success as a social climber is not exclusively an ‘ethnic’ ambition, but a goal for Australians of all backgrounds. In the storyline of Cedar Boys,  ‘Lebanese’ could easily be replaced with ‘bogan’ and ‘Sydney’ with ‘Melbourne’ and we end up with the scenario Lord Mayor Robert Doyle referred to last week when he proclaimed that “bogans” are making their way into the city, polluting our sophisticated urban areas.

Australians have long subscribed to the myth that we live in a classless society. When the statistics have proven us wrong we have comforted ourselves with the nostalgic idea that in spirit we are all genuine egalitarians.

Workers and leaders alike have cherished the blue-collar Aussie identity throughout history and even though economic division is as old as the Federation, we were taught to despise pretention.

Cedar Boys tag-line is “When you’re on the outside… all you want is in”. In where? Hardly in to the myth of a tall-poppy Australia with a proud working class where true mate-ship guarantees a fair go. Tarek and his friends want to be rich. And they’re not alone.

Australia has a growing upper class with OECD statistics showing that the gap between rich and poor is ever widening. Those on the fortunate side of the scale are increasingly adapting to an elite lifestyle.

Today it’s not only okay to be wealthy but here, as in the rest of the developed world, materialism has become fashionable. We increasingly strive for possessions that will demonstrate our success, “positional goods” in the language of economists.

On the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock festival the music is remembered but the values seem long forgotten. Australian popular culture in the 21st century mirror our taste deluxe with Master Chef and Grand Designs offering us a glimpse into the lifestyles we could have had. They function as a stimulus, telling us that getting through midlife crises by designing yourself a mansion is not only normal, but achievable if you only want it bad enough. And like never before we are not ashamed to say that we do.

A recent study by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) show that around 10 per cent of Australian households are today paying for domestic services like cleaning and gardening. In further disregard of the Aussie spirit we abandon the equality of public education, instead choosing to send our children to private, catholic or other non-governmental schools. ABS’ Education Overview reveals that the proportion of students attending government schools fell by eight per cent between 1986 and 2006.

One of the twists in Cedar Boys comes when Tarek, whose dealing career has gotten him into a sticky situation, exposes the true identity of his girlfriend Amie (Rachel Taylor). An upper-class blonde with a taste for expensive drugs, Amie claims to be an interior designer but turns out to be a stripper. Her princess image is nothing but a convincing performance.

There are a lot of performers out there. As the financial crisis mercilessly exposed there are millions of us who have been part of a 24/7 dress up party, guests in a world few could afford to inhabit. Many have now been stripped of the class mask.

Cedar Boys was after all meant to be a film about ethnicity and discrimination in Australia. But the fact that Tarek and his olive-skinned companions are welcome in the VIP rooms of Sydney’s hotspots once they’re cashed up is a reminder that class, as it were, prevails over race. Identity can be bought.

Living in a branded world makes it easier than ever to pass as whatever you want to be. You can rent a Hummer for the weekend or the VIP room at the footy and no one will know how many meals you had to skip to afford it.

When I watch Cedar Boys I see a story of an Australia where it doesn’t matter if you are white, Lebanese, Chinese or bogan. As long as you remember to put the mask on before you leave suburbia we can all pretend that we were born with money and a lucky few even with some class.

Hanna Jacobsen is a final-year journalism student at La Trobe University.