Constance on the Edge: an intimate portrayal

Constance on the Edge is a compelling film about one family’s experience settling as refugees in Australia. 

The director, Belinda Mason, has discovered a charismatic character in Constance. This matriarch of a family from Sudan is honest, feisty, and, beautifully engaging. 

Constance’s experiences, escaping from war, surviving in a refugee camp, and now raising a family in a regional centre that is unfamiliar with Sudanese culture, form the basis of this sprawling story of the quest for home. As Constance says, “In Africa, I was fighting for survival; in the refugee camp I was fighting for human rights, and here in Australia, I’m fighting for belonging.”

The film is gracefully shot, giving enough space, both in the composition of the frames and the rhythm of the editing, to feel what the characters’ are going through. This is necessary as Constance on the Edge is primarily an observational documentary. The camera moves at the same pace as the characters. 

Documentary still

I don’t want to give away the big events for the family but there are many moments of joy throughout Constance’s story, punctuated by moments of real distress. Even in those moments though, as Constance is struck down by depression or Mary is struggling to find a reliable job, Constance’s giant smile breaks through. Court appearances, financial pain, rehab, through it all Constance displays the spirit of a survivor.

This is, ultimately, a story of hope. Constance is a natural leader. She stepped forward in the refugee camp to become an organiser. In Australia, she is working together with community groups and the police force to foster a future for the Sudanese people in her area. The director, Mason, has captured many of the significant beats in this story. Her work with the family and her authentic connection with the wider community is evident in the intimate portrayal of this, often hidden, tale.

To give us a stronger sense of where Constance and her family have come from, Mason worked with animator, Susan Danta. These sections of the film are impressionistic and get right to the heart of the experience. They evoke the struggle and the violence of war and dislocation. Any insight into the refugee experience is welcome.

At the same time as placing Constance’s life in the broader context of life as a refugee, the documentary is firmly set in a country town in Australia. Wagga Wagga is a regional centre of fifty-six thousand people in the Riverina Region of New South Wales. The opening scenes of the film show a peaceful town with mist rising from the river. Antony Partos’ soundtrack is dominated by guitar picking and gentle chords in keeping with the rural setting. 

As the film was shot over the course of ten years we are privy to many stages in the life of Constance and her family. Occasionally it was difficult to keep track of the time and it would have been helpful to have some markers of time passing or a way of orientating the viewer in the story. This would have contributed to the emotional impact of the narrative as we were reminded of the scale of the challenges that the family faces.

Overlooking the town

Constance and her family are among the first Sudanese people to settle in Wagga Wagga. There isn’t any explicit racial abuse documented in the film but it’s clear that there is a level of culture clash as the family learns to settle into their new surroundings. 

Mason is interested in whether the way we treat refugees can promote or impede their ability to contribute successfully over the long term. To that end, the film travels with Mary as she looks for a job and walks alongside Michael as he leaves school and enters life as an adult. The answer to whether or not the actions of other Australians effects the experience of refugees is a resounding yes. 

In laying out this argument Mason, along with the film’s editor, Denise Haslem ASE, have selected events where Constance and her family have the most interaction with the rest of the town. This proves to be an excellent way to invite the viewer into the story. The community centres, shopping malls, and wide streets are familiar and provide a way in for people who may otherwise be unfamiliar with themes of disempowerment and isolation.

Constance on the Edge is a potent observational documentary that reveals a world that is usually hidden behind closed doors in suburban homes. In a beautifully personal way, it invites us to consider what we do as individuals and as a society to welcome refugees into our world. Constance on the Edge empowers us to take action.

Constance on the Edge has been selected for the Melbourne Documentary Film Festival. Click here to see the whole lineup

You can read my interview with the director Belinda Mason here (you can also watch the trailer on that page.) To stay in touch with everything about Constance on the Edge, drop in to their website.