Sydney Film Festival was hit hard by the global pandemic this year, with a drastically reduced line-up that lacked any likely major awards contenders. But within its limited program were some hidden gems – an Irish Lovecraftian thriller, a Finnish anthology film, and a series of Australian documentaries exploring worldly issues and ideas. Rosemary’s Way was among the latter, providing a wholesome celebration of diversity and an exploration of empathy as a means to break isolative habits.
Rosemary is a Kenyan-born woman working as a Multicultural Liaison Officer for the Parramatta police force. Her main focus in this role is reaching out to migrant families, particularly women, who have run into language and cultural barriers that have prevented them from embracing new lives in Australia. For her, the work she does is a healing for her own troubles. She says that to be happy, she needs to make other people happy. Judging from the warmth she has spread around over the years, she might be one of the happiest people alive.
But this documentary isn’t the character study one might initially expect it to be. Though it is named after Rosemary and follows her efforts, it is the women involved in her community that we engage with emotionally as they develop new connections and grow more sure of themselves. Some of them have suffered domestic abuse, and others feel bound by patriarchal traditions. One woman, Pasca, can’t find the time to engage with many of Rosemary’s events since she has three young boys to look after. She lacks confidence, yet Rosemary persists, even offering to organise and pay for babysitting. Eventually Pasca relents, and the journey she goes on sees her open up to new opportunities, discovering a life beyond her home.
Integral to Pasca’s journey is the Cultural Exchange Program that Rosemary runs in her spare time. This is a chance for these migrant women to stay in a regional Australian town for three days where they discover more of the nation’s culture, and share their own cultures with isolated communities. If any of Rosemary’s other events don’t succeed in drawing these women out of their shells, this one surely does, and the new relationships that flourish here provide a wonderfully warm payoff to everything that has come before.
Some of the intertitles scattered throughout the documentary often break form, as the film otherwise relies on the voices of Rosemary and the women to provide necessary exposition. These aren’t quite necessary, and often interrupt the film’s visual and stylistic flow. The editing as a whole isn’t a significant issue given how it beautifully carries through the poignancy of women’s stories, but it does create the impression that this year of Rosemary’s life was filmed in disjointed segments.
It is unfortunate that this year’s Sydney Film Festival was relatively low-key with the move to a virtual online space, because Rosemary’s Way certainly deserves more attention, as it would have received any other year. Its elevation of Australian women who have traditionally been shut out of discussions regarding our multicultural national identity is skilful in how it balances the melancholy of these women’s pasts with the hopefulness of a path forward. Rosemary’s Way comes in at a humble 78 minutes, but the community of women from across the world that Rosemary has built often makes it feel surprisingly ambitious in scope.