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
‘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