Graeme Blun­dell on an SBS high school drama with a hint of Nordic noir

There’s more than a touch of Nordic noir in a high school drama set in western Syd­ney

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Graeme Blun­dell The Prin­ci­pal, Wed­nes­day, SBS One, 8.30pm. Chang­ing Minds: The In­side Story screens across Tues­day, Wed­nes­day and Thurs­day, ABC, 8.30pm.

‘Shows that live with you for days.’’ That is how the lu­mi­nous Sidse Ba­bett Knud­sen, bet­ter known as Bir­gitte Ny­borg, Den­mark’s fic­tional first fe­male prime min­is­ter from the great se­ries Bor­gen, has de­scribed the tele­vi­sion dra­mas we know as Nordic noir.

As well as Bor­gen these in­clude The Killing, The Legacy and The Bridge. Soon to join them are Trapped, a 10-part se­ries set in a re­mote Ice­landic town that be­comes the scene of a dev­as­tat­ing crime, and the eco-crime thriller Fol­low the Money.

While all are vis­ually stun­ning, with as much at­ten­tion paid to the pro­duc­tion de­sign as to the labyrinthine plots, there’s more than just the sus­pense, in­trigue and mys­tery. These shows ask tough ques­tions of their au­di­ence as much as they do of their char­ac­ters. What is the toll on par­ent­hood of pro­fes­sional am­bi­tion? Can fam­ily re­ally pro­vide strength in times of ad­ver­sity? Can de­cency ever pre­vail in pol­i­tics? What is hap­pi­ness?

Their in­flu­ence is felt through­out the TV world and you can see it in the new SBS drama The Prin­ci­pal, di­rected by the award-win­ning Kriv Sten­ders ( Red Dog). This four-part con­tem­po­rary crime se­ries, set in a Syd­ney boys high school, ex­plores cul­tural, eco­nomic and so­cial is­sues in a way that’s just as com­pelling and as­tutely en­gi­neered as any­thing from the Nordic coun­tries. Alex Dim­i­tri­ades plays Matt Bashir, a history teacher and for­mer deputy prin­ci­pal at a pres­ti­gious girls school who has been ap­pointed as the new head of mixed-race Box­dale Boys High. He re­places the ill-fated for­mer prin­ci­pal, who had a gun put to his head by a stu­dent. Clearly the school has been a war zone: the open­ing ti­tles are a slow mo­tion mon­tage of blood, box-cut­ters, van­dal­ism and torn bod­ies. Shots of sur­veil­lance cam­eras are jux­ta­posed with rush­ing, testos­terone-driven school­boys, in­tractable and vi­o­lent.

Bashir has a rep­u­ta­tion for think­ing out­side the square — “If you ex­pect the worst from a kid, that’s what you’ll get” — but his rad­i­cal re­forms are greeted with cyn­i­cism by the staff and dis­may by vice-prin­ci­pal Ursula Bright (Di Adams). She’s an old Labour left-winger, pro­pelled by a sense of drama and self-im­por­tance, irate at hav­ing been over­looked for the top job. Con­vinced she’s been dis­crim­i­nated against on the ba­sis of race and gen­der, she’s de­ter­mined to en­sure the do-good­ing Bashir fails.

The lo­cal butcher, Frank Cal­abrisi (Sal­va­tore Coco), fu­ri­ous at the in­tim­i­dat­ing an­tics of the kids, drops a cow’s head in the school foyer. The stu­dents give Bashir a week.

A Box­dale old boy who once won a prize for scrip­ture, Bashir is hand­some and ap­proach­able, if oddly stiff and for­mal. He grad­u­ally gains the re­spect of the school li­ai­son of­fi­cer, Kelly Nor­ton (Mir­rah Foulkes), as he takes on the no­to­ri­ous Ah­mad broth­ers, de­vot­ing his at­ten­tion to the younger, volatile Tarek (Ra­hel Rom­ahn), with whom he feels a con­nec­tion. Bashir works overtime to get the lo­cal com­mu­nity on side, promis­ing change — but just when it seems he is mak­ing progress, a stu­dent is found dead on the school grounds.

This is a se­ries that car­ries a heavy freight of so­cial crit­i­cism. It’s a mur­der mys­tery that cre­ates dra­matic ten­sion, con­flict and sus­pense, but Sten­ders also thought­fully ex­plores themes of mas­culin­ity, re­li­gion, racism and com­mu­nity.

While di­rec­tors in lo­cal drama tend to be added to the cre­ative team at the last minute (they’re still of­ten re­ferred to dis­dain­fully as “shot col­lec­tors”), Sten­ders was in­vited in by pro­ducer Ian Col­lie ( Rake, Jack Ir­ish) when The Prin­ci­pal was at the out­line stage, the char­ac­ters not yet re­alised.

For once — the re­cent work of Shawn Seet and Peter An­drikidis be­ing ex­cep­tions — a di­rec­tor was able to ex­plore the dra­matic ma­te­rial with a strong cin­e­matic sen­si­bil­ity from the out­set. Sten­ders worked with writ­ers Kris­ten Dun­phy ( East West 101) and Alice Ad­di­son ( The Devil’s Play­ground), shar­ing his vi­sion of the way he saw the drama be­ing shot, staged and styled. And he cer­tainly cre­ates a dis­tinc­tive vis­ual mood and cin­e­matic vo­cab­u­lary.

This is one of the most in­tensely filmic lo­cal TV se­ries we’ve seen since An­drikidis’s bril­liant East West 101. Sten­ders is de­ter­mined to draw our eyes to the screen as if we are in­side a cin­ema watch­ing a film.

“I wanted to move away from the more re­cent re­al­is­tic, hand­held, verite-style cov­er­age that has usu­ally been as­so­ci­ated with this kind of genre and in­stead em­ploy a very de­lib­er­ate, com­posed style in which the cam­era was al­ways fram­ing the ac­tion in a bold and un­usual man­ner,” he says in the show’s pro­duc­tion notes.

Sten­ders and his cin­e­matog­ra­pher, Ge­of­frey Hall, who also shot Red Dog, em­ploy a kind of ur­ban noir style, trans­form­ing western Syd­ney into a dark and mys­te­ri­ous land­scape full of in­trigue and deep con­trast, their clever use of con­ven­tions set­ting up a per­sis­tent play of mean­ings and am­biva­lences. With pro­duc­tion de­signer Clay­ton Jauncey they em­ploy the bru­tal­ist high school ar­chi­tec­ture, all con­crete, steel and re­flect­ing glass, to frame the ac­tion in un­set­tling ways, the cityscape con­vey­ing cramped lone­li­ness and dirty clut­ter. This is a se­ries with a fine den­sity of tex­ture and at­mos­phere, and it’s easy to en­joy the way Sten­ders lets the scenes play out, fo­cused on the char­ac­ters and their emo­tional states, rather than forc­ing the plot along for the sake of move­ment.

Dim­i­tri­ades plays Bashir with a charm­ing mix­ture of pa­tience and pig­head­ed­ness that lend cre­dence to a char­ac­ter who ini­tially seems a lit­tle sanc­ti­mo­nious — though he does have us won­der­ing just why he pa­trols the school’s precincts at night in a hoodie to con­ceal his fea­tures. And Sten­ders han­dles a cast of Mid­dle Eastern, Poly­ne­sian and African teenage ac­tors with skill and the right de­gree of em­pa­thy; Iraqi-born Rom­ahn, in­tense, threat­en­ing and touch­ing all at once, is out­stand­ing. Also di­rected with great skill and com­pas­sion is the ABC’s star­tling three-part Chang­ing Minds: The In­side Story, a key com­po­nent of Men­tal As, a week of pro­gram­ming across TV, ra­dio and online on men­tal ill­ness, health and well­be­ing. In this sec­ond sea­son of the show, pro­ducer Jenni Wilks and di­rec­tor Cian O’Clery take us on a rather fan­tas­ti­cal jour­ney with a group of young men­tally ill pa­tients on their road to re­cov­ery in the locked men­tal health units of Syd­ney’s Camp­bell­town Hos­pi­tal.

The 10 pa­tients in­clude 20-year-old Daniel, whose cannabis ad­dic­tion masks psy­chotic symp­toms; Taileah, a re­cently grad­u­ated 20year-old nurse whose stress man­i­fests in dis­tress­ing au­di­tory hal­lu­ci­na­tions; 24-year-old Nathan, whose schizophre­nia al­lows him to con­verse with Hitler and Muham­mad Ali; and Fabrice, a 36-year-old bar­ris­ter’s son with per­se­cu­tory delu­sions about de­mons and devils.

They all gen­er­ously agreed to be filmed dur­ing the acute phases of their ill­nesses, their sto­ries not re­lated ret­ro­spec­tively but al­lowed to un­fold in cri­sis, a serendip­i­tous process hardly within the norms of pro­duc­tion sched­ules and crew call sheets. It meant there was no guar­an­tee pa­tients would con­tinue to con­sent as they be­came in­creas­ingly in touch with their real selves — and, as O’Clery says, no cer­tainty ex­isted that the sto­ries found would be en­gag­ing to an au­di­ence. Well, they cer­tainly are. This se­ries is not only in­for­ma­tive and in­tensely mov­ing at times, if of­ten un­com­fort­able view­ing, it’s also philo­soph­i­cally pro­found and of­ten very funny as taboos and stig­mas about men­tal ill­ness are con­fronted and chal­lenged. (For ex­am­ple: men­tal ill­ness is not a life sen­tence; not all men­tal ill­nesses are the same; men­tally ill peo­ple are not vi­o­lent; and some cul­tural groups are no more likely than oth­ers to ex­pe­ri­ence it.)

O’Clery and his di­rec­tor of pho­tog­ra­phy, Si­mon Mor­ris, filmed the se­ries in a highly cin­e­matic fash­ion us­ing prime lenses on large sen­sor cam­eras, giv­ing the im­ages a fea­ture-film look with a shal­low depth of field, caus­ing dis­trac­tions to melt away, and at times it looks quite sen­sual. “What I didn’t want was for the se­ries to look ‘raw and gritty’ ”, the di­rec­tor says. “I think that by do­ing our best to make it look beau­ti­ful, it helps present peo­ple and their sto­ries in a sen­si­tive and gen­tle way.”

Bravo to all in­volved es­pe­cially the charm­ing and witty Mark Cross, the psy­chi­a­trist at the cen­tre of this ab­sorb­ing char­ac­ter-driven ob­ser­va­tional se­ries.

Alex Dim­i­tri­ades in The Prin­ci­pal; be­low, psy­chi­a­trist

Mark Cross from

Chang­ing Minds

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