When I was 14 I paid my Turkish friend $20 to steal the Scarface VHS from his brother’s room. I remember the first time I got my hands on the cover; the iconic silhouette of Al Pacino, the diamond R18+ classification and the sinister red script: “He loved the American dream…with a vengeance.”
That night, I told my parents I'd be studying until late.
“They are unwilling to adapt to the spirit of the revolution,” barked Fidel Castro in the opening shot of the film. "We don’t want them! We don’t need them!” And then this was followed by those blood-red titles while Giorgio Moroder’s triumphant soundtrack thundered over the top.
In the school yard we all talked about Scarface because everyone in our group, mostly ethnic migrants, had older siblings or cousins who lived their own interpretation of Tony Montana. Sometimes they dreamed up their own narratives around the film, confusing plot points with Brian De Palma’s other Scarface film, The Untouchables.
Throughout my youth I didn’t know anything about the real Scarface, Al Capone, and after seeing Al Pacino’s performance in the film, I certainly didn’t give a shit. My world revolved around the story of a Cuban migrant who strutted around Miami beach in a white suit and Carrera aviators, driving a Cadillac with Elvira in the leopard-print passenger seat.
We all had dreams of making it like Tony, because he achieved the American dream with something we thought we all had: balls. When Tony addressed a crowd of rich diners in a restaurant, he declared, “You don’t have the guts to be who you want to be.” We found our self-destructive courage in this same misguided bravado. Tony Montana was like a devil on our shoulders, and at school we used to ask ourselves, what would Scarface do? The results were usually far from dreamy.
Tony Montana was the poster boy for a generation of migrant crooks in Australia. Among them were such household names as underworld hitmen Andrew Benji Veniamin, Dino Dibra, Paul Kallipolitis and “The Black Prince of Lygon Street,” Alphonse Gangitano. And all of them were brutally gunned down in the Melbourne underworld wars—a tragic example of art imitating life and life imitating art.
For some migrants, the rags-to-riches thesis of the film inspired brazen crime and gave them a thirst for do-or-die capitalism. And I know this for sure, because I went and interviewed some of my friends about it.
One such friend was Moey, a Syrian migrant who has been in Australia for less than five years. We met outside his local milk bar in Meadow Heights, before following his Harley Davidson V-rod back to his three-storey suburban home. He'd been imprisoned for three years for a string of drug-related offences. Last year, police raided his house to find a kilo of methamphetamine, and unsurprisingly he's also the biggest Scarface fan I know.
“My favourite scene was in the restaurant when Tony says, ‘You don’t have the guts to be who you want to be," Moey told me, sitting at his table. "You know when I came to Melbourne, I went to Chapel street on a Friday night and they looked at me like that, I swear. Everyone was watching me like I was about to commit a crime. Like I was a zoo animal that was going to turn!”
At this point I could see Moey begin to fire up. “I wasn’t even drunk or fighting!” he said. “But whether you like it or not, when people are always watching you, and in the media they’re saying you’re the bad guy…all the bad guys are Muslim. We going to start acting like it because everyone's acting like we're [bad guys].”
It would be naive to ignore the way in which Muslims in the media landscape have become synonymous with terrorism, and for guys like Moey the bad guy trope was a fitting social costume. He was essentially rebelling or reacting to the conditions of his environment, which he recognised Tony Montana was doing as well. Both my friend and his fictional hero embraced their prescribed social personas, and manipulated them to survive against the odds.
“It was my story too, you know? Coming here, it was hard to find work. Detention centres, this and that. People laughing because we liked different clothes and spoke different English. We had balls to take big risks,” explained Moey as we smoked grape shisha in his living room. “It was our only chance so we had a go and [tried to] make big money. And we made big money, we really lived like him, the world was ours, until it fell apart. We were booking penthouses at Crown and snorting eight-balls. But at least we tasted what it was all about.”
And when I went to jail, we watched Scarface on a USB in our cells. And we talked about all the good times, the nights when we lived it up,” said Moey.
Moey told me about how he drowned himself in a culture that convinced him the world was only worth living in marble, and that women only took an interest if you thrashed supercars and wore thousand dollar Louis Vuitton sneakers.
Then finally in jail Moey managed to peel away the plastic superficiality of his situation. “It was in jail that we learned that it’s not about living fast and watches and jewellery and bullshit. When you see the kids visiting their parents you learn there’s more to life but we were blind to it.”
However, the deranged anarchy that Scarface had inspired Moey wasn’t shared by the majority of migrant fans I spoke to. Most watched the film and absorbed the moral lesson that was recycled in the gangster genre, the bleeding obvious premise that bad guys don’t get good endings.
One such friend is Rahim, an Afghan migrant who is a senior partner in Accounting firm. I met him at a cafe on Collins Street and asked him why Scarface was his favourite film. Without pausing he said, “Because it shows how the baggage from your past, coming from a place of war, makes some young guys self destruct. It gives people an idea about our background and how it troubles some of us when we try to make a life here.”
I asked him what his favourite scene was and he replied in seconds. “When he takes the money to his mum's house, and she tells him to get fucked. And because only ethnic mums can speak to brats like that and reduce them to the little boys they are. They’re not men, like our parents who moved here to work until they had blisters on their hands.”
In Scarface, Tony was a criminal before he travelled to America. He was a Cuban outcast, who had served in the military and been imprisoned. Migrants in Australia who wound up involved in crime are outcasts in their own communities and are often ex-communicated when they become convicted as criminals. And for migrants in Australia, Scarface reflects the pain of community rejection.
“The scene when Tony came home shows how our community feels about these guys. They don’t represent us and although they might have the cars and jewellery, they never earn our respect,” explained Rahim. “They’re so retarded they watch the film and don’t understand that it’s telling them that this path, of greed, only comes with paranoia and violence, and only ends in destruction.”
In this way, Rahim’s experience of the film was in stark contrast to Moey’s.
“When you’re younger, you want to chase after that shit because it’s about your ego, the flash cars and the women, we all wanted that in our own way. To me it was about being a nobody and if you take shortcuts in life, they’ll catch up with you. That’s what the movie was about. It’s like all these part-time gangsters never made it to the end of the movie when he gets knocked. But maybe some of these guys, they watch it and think it was all worth it. They want to live life like a rollercoaster ride or a movie, because the reality of 9-5 work is a real slog.”
So far I'd captured some very masculine reactions to the film, but I wanted a female take on its influence too. So I spoke to Yasmin, a 24-year-old fashion student whose parents moved to Australia from Lebanon. When we met she was wearing a red Supreme t shirt with the Scarface silhouette printed on it.
“Scarface meant the world to me because it showed us the culture clash that exists between men and women in migrant families,” she explained. “It taught us lessons about my relationships with my brothers and dad before we experienced it.”
Yasmin told me that although her brothers had successful careers in construction and law, they too struggled to overcome the deep-seated religious hangups that complicate the rights of women in migrant communities.
“The Romeo and Juliet situation between Tony’s sister [Gina Montana] and his best friend [Manny], happens in our community every couple of months,” she said. “A lot of Muslim girls don’t go out and meet boys. The only ones they meet are their brother's friends who they end up dating and getting married to. And that’s still happening.”
For Yasmin, the film highlights Gina Montana’s story, who is told to enjoy her newfound “freedom” as long as it fits Tony’s shapeshifting view of the world. Yasmin told me, “The scene where Tony slaps his sister because she wants to fuck boys speaks volumes. A friend of mine had a similar experience when her brother demanded to go through her Instagram and when she refused it escalated like crazy.”
At this, it occurred to me that the real tragedy of the film’s dated legacy lay in the continued oppression of Muslim women in migrant communities where culture and tradition serve as excuses to deny agency.
Later, when I got home, I realised that my younger brothers friends don’t have posters of a bloodied Tony Montana, and they don’t know what a "chazzer" is. They only think it’s cool because Supreme told them so. It seems that among migrant teenagers today, Scarface is an out-of-date action film that provides more comedic relief than a template for ambition. Increasingly they've said goodnight to the bad guy. And I don’t know if that’s a good thing.
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