first watch

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - Graeme Blun­dell

‘ ONE of the great chal­lenges, I think, in mod­ern TV, with so many choices and so many chan­nels, is how to make im­por­tant stuff in­ter­est­ing,’’ di­rec­tor Ivan O’Ma­honey is say­ing, and with some pas­sion, too. He’s one of two highly ex­pe­ri­enced doc­u­men­tary film-mak­ers — the other is Rick McPhee — who di­rected the tele­vi­sion event Go Back to Where You Came From.

Pro­duced by the Cordell Jig­saw Group and screen­ing on three con­sec­u­tive nights this week, it’s one of the most am­bi­tious fac­tual se­ries made in this coun­try. It’s still be­ing edited fran­ti­cally when O’Ma­honey and I speak, and even though I don’t have the en­tire se­ries to watch I see enough grabs of each episode to get a sense of how ef­fec­tively the for­mat works.

‘‘ You have to face the fact that as a doc­u­men­tary film­maker who wants to work in TV, you are up against shows like Packed to the Rafters, House and CSI that are a lit­tle eas­ier for view­ers to stay glued to, which is what they are de­signed to do,’’ O’Ma­honey says. ‘‘ Doc­u­men­tary film­mak­ers need to un­der­stand why peo­ple choose to watch these shows, rather than dis­miss­ing this el­e­ment of competition. There are things that we can learn about pre­sen­ta­tion and about telling our sto­ries.’’

Su­perbly pho­tographed and edited, Go Back to Where You Came From is a se­ries that deals with the pol­i­tics of asy­lum and in some ways in­evitably the pol­i­tics of na­tional iden­tity, though it doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily cham­pion a more in­clu­sive, more com­pas­sion­ate in­ter­est in the way the pol­i­tics are be­ing played out.

About 70 peo­ple ap­plied to par­tic­i­pate in the pro­gram, agree­ing to chal­lenge their pre­con­ceived no­tions about refugees and asy­lum-seek­ers by em­bark­ing on a some­times dan­ger­ous, al­ways con­fronting, 25day jour­ney.

The fea­tured six — Raye, Dar­ren, Gleny, Adam, Rod­er­ick and Raquel — range in age from 21 to 63 and come from across Aus­tralia. They dif­fer in their po­lit­i­cal views, stri­dently in some cases, from op­pos­ing the de­ten­tion of asy­lum-seek­ers to want­ing to send all of them straight back.

‘‘ Aus­tralia should be Aus­tralia, just like Africa is Africa and Asia is Asia and Amer­ica is Amer­ica. It shouldn’t be so mul­ti­cul­tural,’’ de­clares Raquel, 21. Raye, 63, who lives op­po­site the In­ver­brackie de­ten­tion cen­tre in the Ade­laide Hills is even tougher.

‘‘ When the boat crashed com­ing Christ­mas Is­land I thought, ‘ Serve into you bas­tards right,’ ’’ she says at the se­ries start. ‘‘ Come the right way and it wouldn’t have hap­pened.’’

Rod­er­ick, 29, is run­ning for the vi­cepres­i­dency of the fed­eral Young Lib­er­als and is afraid at the start of be­ing per­ceived as a left-lean­ing bleed­ing heart. Dar­ren, 42, a for­mer mil­i­tary ra­dio op­er­a­tor, is also a Lib­eral Party mem­ber, whose an­ces­tors were in the first group of Mus­lim fam­i­lies to ar­rive in Aus­tralia in the 1800s as cameleers. While his fam­ily suc­cess­fully in­te­grated, he is con­vinced mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism is a fail­ure.

Adam, a 26-year-old life­guard from Cronulla, also has zero tol­er­ance for asy­lum­seek­ers ar­riv­ing by boat. Only Gleny, a 39-year-old part-time school­teacher and singer (she works as Gleny Rae Virus) is sym­pa­thetic, be­liev­ing we could take more refugees. The cast­ing is in­dica­tive of the way so many Aus­tralians are not sup­port­ive of a more sym­pa­thetic ap­proach to asy­lum­seek­ers, pre­fer­ring a hard line against unau­tho­rised ar­rivals.

As ev­ery pro­ducer knows, there are only three rules about cre­at­ing this kind of show: cast­ing, cast­ing and cast­ing. This group of par­tic­i­pants is won­der­fully cho­sen and, as it turns out, they are some­how re­silient enough to cope with what ap­pears to be a ter­ri­ble or­deal. Dur­ing the jour­ney they be­come fer­vently in­volved in the is­sues.

They are ac­com­pa­nied by a crew of about 16, in­clud­ing the two direc­tors and guide David Cor­lett, the num­bers shrink­ing and ex­pand­ing de­pend­ing on the cir­cum­stances. A case worker with refugees and asy­lum-

seek­ers, Cor­lett is au­thor of Fol­low­ing Them Home: The Fate of Re­turned Asy­lum Seek­ers. It’s such an el­e­gant idea for a se­ries; kind of through-the-mir­ror TV. Trac­ing in re­verse the jour­neys that refugees have taken to reach Aus­tralia, the par­tic­i­pants travel to some of the most des­per­ate parts of the world, with no idea what is in store for them. De­prived of their wal­lets, phones and pass­ports, they board a leaky refugee boat that al­most sinks and are res­cued mid-ocean.

They ex­pe­ri­ence im­mi­gra­tion raids in Malaysia, live in a Kenyan refugee camp and visit slums in Jor­dan be­fore ul­ti­mately mak­ing it to the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of Congo and Iraq, pro­tected by UN peace­keep­ers and the US mil­i­tary. Even if it doesn’t change a sin­gle attitude, the se­ries ex­poses the refugee re­al­ity of ar­bi­trary ar­rest, ha­rass­ment, de­spair, ex­tor­tion and im­pris­on­ment. O’Ma­honey says the unedited in­ter­views be­tween ‘‘ the pun­ters’’ and the groups of refugees were of­ten sur­pris­ingly frank and some­times un­set­tling. They were not ‘‘ pro­duced’’ in the sense of be­ing told what to say by the off-screen direc­tors, which is the norm in these kind of shows.

‘‘ In fact, I ex­pected to do more of that but they were so ea­ger to learn and to hear, and to share their own views with the asy­lum­seek­ers. They wanted them to know what they felt about them,’’ he says.

O’Ma­honey and his col­leagues have some­how en­gi­neered out of com­plex and in­tractable ma­te­rial a won­der­fully en­ter­tain­ing and of­ten com­pelling for­mat, al­though no one seems quite cer­tain what it is.

‘‘ I’m not sure we’ve fig­ured it out, to be hon­est,’’ O’Ma­honey says of the style of pre­sen­ta­tion. ‘‘ I wish I had an au­thor­i­ta­tivesound­ing an­swer there.’’ He de­ter­mines even­tu­ally that the se­ries is best de­scribed as a kind of blend be­tween re­al­ity TV and ob­ser­va­tional doc­u­men­tary.

‘‘ The re­al­ity as­pect is where you are very up-front about the way you are do­ing things that are con­structed; where you de­lib­er­ately take peo­ple out of their com­fort zone, their nor­mal lives, and send them on a jour­ney,’’ he says. ‘‘ But once they are in­serted, we hang back and we see what hap­pens.’’

Like so many re­al­ity TV for­mats these days, it echoes other shows, be­nignly bor­row­ing tropes and con­ven­tions, or ‘‘ reimag­in­ing’’ them, as pro­duc­ers like to say these days. There are touches of the durable old work­horse Sur­vivor, Amaz­ing Race and Nine’s hit se­ries In Their Foot­steps, in which par­tic­i­pants em­barked on pow­er­ful per­sonal jour­neys in the foot­steps of a close an­ces­tor’s wartime ex­pe­ri­ence.

It has some­thing in com­mon, too, with the beau­ti­fully pro­duced and pho­tographed six­part as­sault on West­ern con­sumerism, Blood, Sweat and Lux­u­ries that screened re­cently on the ABC. That se­ries ex­am­ined the la­bo­ri­ous and dan­ger­ous pro­duc­tion of lux­ury goods in Africa. Six young, self-ab­sorbed Bri­tish con­sumers swapped their com­fort­able lives for the mud huts and shanty towns of Asia to work along­side those who mine, man­u­fac­ture, process and re­cy­cle lux­ury goods.

Go Back to Where You Came From is just as con­fronting, and it is ob­vi­ous the pro­duc­ers worked dili­gently to bring the var­i­ous sides of this ac­ri­mo­nious de­bate into one mi­cro­cosm. They present a minia­ture body of ideas that can be ob­served in a small group of peo­ple will­ing to be wran­gled into this kind of ex­pe­ri­ence. It’s a fas­ci­nat­ing so­cial ex­per­i­ment, fol­low­ing and cap­tur­ing a set of ar­ti­fi­cial sit­u­a­tions, care­fully mod­elled on real ones.

It’s an ex­treme ex­am­ple of what is some­times called ‘‘ the life in­ter­ven­tion’’ for­mat of some re­al­ity shows. These pro­grams mo­bilise var­i­ous pro­fes­sional mo­ti­va­tors and life­style ex­perts to help us over­come ob­sta­cles in our per­sonal, pro­fes­sional and do­mes­tic lives.

They en­ter­tain­ingly use dif­fer­ent forms of self-man­age­ment tech­niques, life-chang­ing in­ter­ven­tions or sim­ply re­solve spe­cific prob­lems, such as how to sell a house in a for­eign coun­try, how to lose weight and how to man­age our chil­dren bet­ter. The no­tion of TV as so­cial worker may be anath­ema to some but it pro­vides great en­ter­tain­ment.

Go Back to Where You Came From is go­ing to be en­gross­ing TV as it un­folds. It is seem­ingly non-par­ti­san and goes to air at a time nei­ther of the two main Aus­tralian po­lit­i­cal par­ties can lay claim to a prin­ci­pled stand on the is­sue. All nu­ance has dis­ap­peared from the de­bate.

‘‘ Even those of the six who didn’t change their po­si­tions came to ap­pre­ci­ate that the dis­cus­sion is not as sim­ple as they had al­ways thought,’’ O’Ma­honey says. ‘‘ I don’t want view­ers to think that we want to ma­nip­u­late them into be­ing ex­tremely wel­com­ing of asy­lum-seek­ers or that we have a po­si­tion that they are all bad and un­wel­come.’’

As he sug­gests, if the one thing the se­ries achieves is to make peo­ple re­alise there is a more com­plex dis­cus­sion to be had, it will have done its job. But it won’t be easy. IN­SPEC­TOR Ge­orge Gen­tly re­turns this week with a fea­ture film-length se­ries that’s tougher and darker than the ear­lier episodes. The sto­ries are adapted for the screen by Peter Flan­nery ( The Devil’s Whore, Our Friends in the North) and Jimmy Gard­ner ( This Life) from the In­spec­tor Gen­tly nov­els by Alan Hunter.

Martin Shaw, so good as the mav­er­ick judge in Jus­tice John Deed, again stars as an in­cor­rupt­ible cop­per in 1960s Northum­ber- land. The set­tings have shifted from the Nor­folk of the nov­els but the tex­ture of the Durham district is breath­tak­ing.

While the city land­scape is still grimly in­dus­tri­alised, the re­gion has a rich haul of cas­tles, the majesty of Hadrian’s Wall and the green ex­panses of the Che­viot Hills and North Pen­nines. It’s an area of out­stand­ing nat­u­ral beauty and a pho­tog­ra­pher’s dream, with stone-walled mead­ows, up­land dales and tum­bling val­leys.

But un­like, say Mid­somer Mur­ders, the show’s take on its set­ting is as un­set­tling as the crimes the qui­etly res­o­lute cop at­tempts to solve.

Re­cov­er­ing from the mur­der of his Ital­ian wife, Is­abella, the still griev­ing Gen­tly was thrown into a mael­strom of mur­der and may­hem when he left Lon­don for the north­east of Eng­land at the show’s birth. As he quickly dis­cov­ers, the line be­tween po­lice and crim­i­nals is even more blurred than in the big city.

Each case pits old-fash­ioned prej­u­dice and big­otry against the rapidly emerg­ing re­al­ity of so­cial change. And Gen­tly, in his com­pas­sion­ate, deeply hu­mane way, deals with is­sues sur­round­ing the pill, le­galised abor­tion and the sex­ual as­sault of young women. (She asked for it, didn’t she?)

In the first episode of the new se­ries he deals with fam­ily se­crets when a young woman is found mur­dered in a sleepy coastal vil­lage. Pos­si­ble pe­dophilia emerges in the in­ves­ti­ga­tion, which is thwarted by the in­ter­ven­tion of a rogue tabloid re­porter.

Mean­while, Gen­tly’s hot-tem­pered young side­kick, DS Bac­chus (Lee In­gleby), is hav­ing mar­riage prob­lems and be­comes jeal­ous when he re­alises how close Gen­tly has be­come to his es­tranged wife, Lisa (Me­lanie Clark Pullen), the chief com­mis­sioner’s daugh­ter. In­gleby is mes­meris­ing as the thin­faced coun­try cop, all an­gles and speed­i­ness and oily charm.

Shaw is as good as he has been in a long ca­reer, gruff and glow­er­ing. Against the back­ground of a cor­rupt so­ci­ety, his code of de­cency stands out as a bea­con of dis­in­ter­ested moral­ity. In­spec­tor Ge­orge Gen­tly, Sun­day, 8.30pm, ABC1 Go Back to Where You Came From, Tues­day, Wed­nes­day and Thurs­day, 8.30pm, SBS One

Martin Shaw, left, as Ge­orge Gen­tly

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