Article: Courier Mail – “Clare Bowen faces on-screen prejudice in The Combination”

February 21, 2009

“I DON’T really get the whole dumb blonde thing,” says ravishing newcomer Clare Bowen, who’s just made her screen debut in The Combination – a spiky tale of life within Sydney’s Lebanese community that’s part West Side Story, part Once Were Warriors.

Two minutes in Clare’s company and it’s easy to see why. She may be just 24 and seriously foxy straight out of the “Cameron Diaz” mould, but this is no giggling ingenue. Far from it. For despite being born with the kind of features you’d assume had kept her fairly immune in life from discrimination’s pointy end, this fledgling star possesses a wisdom that almost certainly comes from having learned at a very young age what it is to be different. While the rest of us were swinging off the Hills hoist and playing backyard cricket, one of Bowen’s earliest childhood memories is living on a baby elephant orphanage in one of Zimbabwe’s small indigenous villages.

“My parents wanted me to see other ways of life for a while,” explains Bowen, who describes her family fondly as a “bit of a bohemian bunch” (her mother is an interior designer, her father a chef for Qantas First Class; her younger brother a classical musician).

“It was so beautiful there,” she recalls. “It used to be this one little pocket of Zimbabwe that hadn’t been touched by all the racial unrest. I had a pet dung beetle.” One day, when the Bowens were picnicking near train tracks with friends, a man rushed at them with a large stick and told them to leave. “That was the beginning of the end of our stay. I remember crying. I was so young that I didn’t understand why we were so different or why we couldn’t sit with our friends who were like family to us.” (These days the Bowen clan, Clare included, live blissfully on a river on the south coast of New South Wales.)

Cancer battle
Back in Australia, the innocence of Clare’s childhood was about to be permanently shattered. On her fourth birthday, she lay listlessly on the sofa refusing to eat her lamington cake or play with the cat. “I loved animals, so my mum knew there was something wrong.”

Clare had a rare form of cancer usually contracted by babies in the womb that causes them to spontaneously abort. “Somehow I had survived,” says Bowen, who battled the cancer until she was seven. “I can actually remember most of it, except for the pink elephantish times I was doped up on morphine,” she laughs.

“It does change you. You learn about what is important and what you don’t need to worry about. “One of the earliest experiences I had with discrimination though as a little girl was when all my hair fell out.” The theme of prejudice and the intolerance humans often show towards each other has been on Clare’s mind a lot lately.

Culture clash
In The Combination, the first movie project of Aussie acting veteran David Field (Chopper, Two Hands), she plays Sydney – an Anglo-Saxon middle class Australian who falls in love with Lebanese ex-con John after he saves her from a mugging. Their romance is greeted with deep unhappiness by both Sydney and John’s respective families. In one particularly unsettling scene, Sydney’s father makes a heartfelt plea to his daughter to break up with her boyfriend because “they’re just not like us, love, and that’s not being racist”.

“That speech summed up the way a lot of (Anglo) Australians feel about different cultures like the Lebanese, because all they see are the violence and rage and headlines,” muses Bowen. “They don’t have the pleasure of actually meeting the people and falling in love with that culture. They just read that four boys in Bankstown were killed last night. They’re terrified. “You’ll do anything to save someone you love and that’s all Sydney’s father is trying to do.”

Bowen says several of her own boyfriends have come from different cultural backgrounds. In a stark real-life parallel to Field’s film, one of his lead Lebanese actors, Ali Haider, 19, has been in custody since November following a street brawl in Sydney. In the movie, his character, Zeus, is involved in armed hold-ups, drugs and shootings. Bowen’s casting as Field’s female lead, meanwhile, has Cinderella undertones; she had no film training whatsoever and had been about to start a teaching degree as her “Plan B” when the actor-turned-director remembered her from a tutorial he’d taken nearly three years previously.

“I’d only been mucking around in the back doing some exercises for the class,” she says, still clearly gobsmacked. Field spent about a month trying to track her down.

Something about Clare
Novice she might be, but the screen tells a different story and Field raves about his discovery’s raw vulnerability. “There’s something about that girl,” he says. Bowen, educated at the “very multicultural Dulwich Hill” in Sydney’s inner-west, believes her refreshingly open attitude towards other cultures stems from her unconventional upbringing.

“I was very lucky that way. I’ve seen what is out there and haven’t been stuck in my own back yard. Not everyone has the choice. People tend to group together with what they know; human nature is a very strange thing. But we’re stuck with it I’m afraid.”

Source/Credit: Courier Mail