NOT THE WHOLE TRUTH
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.
Promotional images for SBS’s Michael LaHoud in the centre, and top, with