NOT THE WHOLE TRUTH

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - Graeme Blun­dell re­turns next week.

be­yond their con­trol, be­gin­ning with the first Gulf war in the early 90s, the 9/11 ter­ror­ist at­tacks a decade later, and the wrong­do­ing of a small but prom­i­nent crim­i­nal el­e­ment.

Weak­nesses with this pro­duc­tion emerged just be­fore Christ­mas when The Daily Tele­graph re­ported that one of the poster boys for the se­ries, the head-to-toe tat­tooed Michael La­Houd, didn’t spend time in max­i­mum se­cu­rity prison or fa­ther chil­dren while in­car­cer­ated, as he had claimed. SBS was forced to post­pone screen­ing the se­ries, and is now re­view­ing the con­tent with North­ern Pic­tures.

The prob­lems with this pro­duc­tion, how­ever, go be­yond one char­ac­ter. I found Punch­bowl frus­trat­ing from a stylis­tic as well as a fac­tual viewpoint, and I’m in a good po­si­tion to make this as­sess­ment as I grew up in a neigh­bour­ing sub­urb. My fam­ily has lived in the area around Punch­bowl since the 30s, and my par­ents were mar­ried in Punch­bowl.

I also have a fair amount of Leb cred: I went to a high school not un­like the one fea­tured in the se­ries, along with a large num­ber of Le­banese mi­grants who ar­rived in Syd­ney straight from the bombed-out streets of Beirut in the mid-70s.

This co­hort of Le­banese youths could not have been more dif­fer­ent from the sam­ple as­sem­bled by the mak­ers of Punch­bowl. Many of them stud­ied very hard and were fe­ro­ciously com­pet­i­tive. Most have gone on to suc­cess­ful ca­reers, in­clud­ing those who strug­gled at school. A hand­ful of my school­mates did end up in jail, but none of them was Le­banese.

This is not to deny that some Le­banese youths from Punch­bowl got in­volved with se­ri­ous crim­i­nal ac­tiv­ity, but it seems the producers may have as­sem­bled a bi­ased sam­ple that por­trays a deeper and more in­tractable prob­lem.

From a fac­tual viewpoint, there’s lit­tle ap­par­ent at­ten­tion paid to ver­i­fy­ing the claims made by the in­ter­vie­wees. Punch­bowl’s ‘‘ vic­tim’’ theme, for ex­am­ple, be­gins with the un­cor­rob­o­rated, un­chal­lenged as­ser­tion that Le­banese peo­ple were vic­timised dur­ing the first Gulf war in 1990, even though the con­flict had noth­ing to do with Le­banon. The producers should have in­cluded, at the very least, me­dia re­ports from the time to sub­stan­ti­ate th­ese claims.

Nor have the producers ap­par­ently seen any merit in in­ter­view­ing the non-Le­banese res­i­dents of Punch­bowl who have seen their com­mu­nity trans­formed. While the aim of the se­ries is to tell the mi­grant story, the most ba­sic tenet of re­port­ing is to give both sides of the story. The re­vamped se­ries will have more authen­tic­ity if the per­spec­tive of the old-timers of Punch­bowl is in­cluded.

From a stylis­tic viewpoint, the se­ries doesn’t pro­vide the viewer with a sense of the sub­urb’s real look or feel. There are some shots of the streets, but they seem ab­stract. Had the sub­jects of the se­ries been in­ter­viewed in their neigh­bour­hoods, view­ers would come away with a bet­ter sense of the place.

Even more frus­trat­ing are the nu­mer­ous aerial shots of Punch­bowl show­ing ter­ra­cotta roofs, rail­way lines and tree-lined streets, which could have been taken any­where in Syd­ney.

Re­view sub­mit­ted a se­ries of ques­tions to SBS, seek­ing an­swers about how it checks the ve­rac­ity of fac­tual con­tent. An SBS spokes­woman de­clined to elab­o­rate, other than to say SBS had post­poned the screen­ing of Punch­bowl to ‘‘ al­low for re­view and ver­i­fi­ca­tion of its ma­te­rial with our pro­duc­tion part­ners North­ern Pic­tures’’.

North­ern Pic­tures is plan­ning another in­stal­ment, Once Upon a Time in Carl­ton, about the Ital­ian com­mu­nity in Mel­bourne. A mul­ti­me­dia pro­duc­tion about the 2005 Cronulla ri­ots rounds out its in­ter­est in eth­nic sto­ry­telling.

The lessons from the Punch­bowl se­ries aren’t lim­ited to the SBS. Ac­cord­ing to the ABC, ‘‘ rec­ol­lec­tions and mem­o­ries of in­ter­vie­wees . . . do not con­sti­tute fac­tual con­tent’’, and there­fore when such in­ter­views are chal­lenged, they go un­cor­rected.

This was the re­sponse in 2010 when I raised con­cerns about claims of a mas­sacre tak­ing place im­me­di­ately af­ter Aus­tralian troops were evacuated from East Ti­mor in 1942. At the time I had just fin­ished writ­ing a book on the sub­ject.

The tran­script of the in­ter­view mak­ing the mas­sacre claims re­mains on the ABC web­site, with no men­tion that the ac­count was chal­lenged by me as well as by a re­tired army bri­gadier who has also re­searched th­ese events. Late last year, the com­ments about the mas­sacre were re­cy­cled in fed­eral par­lia­ment by for­mer Howard gov­ern­ment min­is­ter Philip Rud­dock.

Once Upon a Time in Punch­bowl, Once Upon a Time in Cabra­matta,

Promotional im­ages for SBS’s Michael La­Houd in the cen­tre, and top, with

above

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