A new series aims to take viewers out of their comfort zone and into the lives of society’s outsiders
Reality TV and the factual observational format, so popular and so prevalent on our screens, have become entwined: real people in stories that seem to unfold in front of the camera, and dramatic narrative arcs that seem to be driven more by events than scripts or a director’s vision. And, if you loathe reality TV in any form, this next thought will make you scoff: the idea informing many of these shows is to induct us into a more liberal and accountable form of citizenship.
“By offering stories, often backed up with public service, information about nutrition, parenting, housekeeping and volunteerism, reality TV teaches participants and viewers techniques of self-government in the interests of the group,” writes Misha Kavka in her persuasive book Reality TV. It’s helping us manage surgical procedures, cope with our embarrassing bodies, find suitable partners, become happier families, learn to cook with economy and fluency, develop confidence in building and making over our homes and gardens, dress with confidence, avoid obesity, learn how to resourcefully school our kids, and develop personal confidence.
The latest show teaching us how to be better people is the ABC’s singularly original You Can’t Ask That, and it does it in a way that is thoroughly engaging and highly entertaining. It’s an exercise in stereotype-busting: 10 episodes of 15 minutes each, launched on iView — increasingly Aunty’s place for innovation and experimentation — and now joining prime-time programming on the ABC’s main channel. Produced and directed by Kirk Docker and Aaron Smith, it’s one of those shows where you slap your forehead as you watch and say out loud: “Why didn’t I think of that?”
Docker and Smith are both highly experienced as creators of slightly off-the-grid TV material that’s as stylish as it is thought-provoking. Smith is a cinematographer, director and producer whose experience spans documentary, drama and TV comedy. Last year he shot Sarah Ferguson’s groundbreaking documentary series Hitting Home, bringing cinematic imagery to some of the most emotionally raw sequences in Australian current affairs television.
Docker is a Walkley Award-nominated journalist and a producer responsible for some of Australia’s most groundbreaking youth content, including the uncensored online broadcaster Vive Cool City, which streamed short, punchy original documentary episodes covering stories that couldn’t be found anywhere else — from incest in Tasmania to kidnapping in Mexico to homeless kids in Los Angeles. Altogether, its 700 episodes were watched more than 10 million times.
This is their idea: what would happen if you gave people the chance to ask society’s outsiders the questions they were too embarrassed, too shy, too awkward and too scared to ask? What would happen if those stereotyped minorities were given the right to answer those questions directly? The premise is deceptively simple: misunderstood, marginalised Australians answering anonymous online queries in front of a seemingly static camera. They are not asked to perform or compete but just to be themselves.
The look is spare, a kind of open stage, and suggests a clinical psychological research study, but the clever use of graphics adds a cool vibe. The situation is highly contrived but inside the format anything can happen, even though the events are tightly edited in post-production and the interviews juxtaposed to provide the greatest entertainment value.
“Once the cameras started rolling, we realised that the conversations our guests were having rarely get to happen in this country,” the show’s creators say in their producer’s statement. “We all walk around so scared of treading on toes, or saying something politically incor- rect, that no one asks these questions. Day to day, we all feel trapped by that fear.” Our dread of asking questions means most of us don’t talk to people who are different from ourselves, so our questions remain unanswered and we lack understanding of others.
Smith suggests the concept was inspired by a combination of short video segments and askme-anything forums from a range of online media outlets including the BBC, Buzzfeed, The Huffington Post and Reddit that they had studied. “The core of these pieces is about tackling taboos but often the content — although entertaining — is limited to a short video segment or written forum with limited capacity for a range of participants to address the issues in a detailed or meaningful way,” he says. “You Can’t Ask That is an adaptation of this style of online content, expanded and moulded to television. In building on the concept we were very focused on putting the power into the hands of the onscreen participants, providing a platform for them to share their experiences and stories with dignity.”
With wit and a kind of good cheer they drop us into the lives of short-statured Australians, wheelchair users, the transgendered, Muslims, ex-prisoners, fat people, indigenous people, sex workers, the terminally ill and the polyamorous. They are the sort of people rarely seen on our screens, and some of the most judged and least understood Australians are given the chance to be heard.
And the series asks frank, direct and at times uncomfortable questions of them — not that many of the subjects appear ill at ease — which result in instructive and surprising answers, some of which are very funny indeed.
Among the guests are 76-year-old transgender woman Rosemary Jones, disability rights advocate and wheelchair user Kelly Vincent, short-statured comic Imaan Hadchiti, sex worker and porn star Lucie Bee, former prisoner and infamous escapee John Killick, niqab-wearing Muslims Anisa and Sadia Khan, and indigenous dancers from Echo Island in far northeastern Arnhem Land, Danzal Baker and Wakara Ganderra. And as the ABC points out with some pride, “this is one of the most diverse projects to grace Australian television” (and will probably infuriate those who loathe Aunty’s propensity to try to make us better people).
The set-up is simple. The show begins with the camera focused on the generic bare studio set. At its centre is a greyish backcloth, with a few lights on stands scattered around and two stools in front of the scrim. As music begins — a touch of the old-time carnival side show about it — graphics flash across the backcloth, voices repeating the sentences: Why are you so fat? Have you had surgery? Can you shower yourself? Can you buy drugs in jail? It’s unexpected and funny, a touch Brechtian in the signage and Kurt Weil-like tune.
The first episode looks at wheelchair users, the subjects facing camera and reaching forward out of frame to take each question typed on a card. As Docker says, the technique allows the viewer to focus on the subjects “while removing the artifice of ‘host’ as the voice of moral judgment”. And of course with cards there is no adversarial relationship between the guests and the TV crew. “We were both locked in a room with a set of uncomfortable questions — together we navigated our way out,” Docker says. “Our guests control their experience on the show, which allows them the dignity and respect needed to speak to the audience and honestly answer their questions.”
Asked what impact being in a wheelchair has on his love life, Neil Lillecrapp from Adelaide says, “I remember one of the first things I said was, ‘ Who’s going to want me? I’m no longer a man’, and somehow in my early years I picked up the message that people with disabilities aren’t real men.” On how she feels when told she’s an inspiration, Kelly Vincent, who suffers from cerebral palsy, says, “I don’t mind if I’m donating my kidneys to someone who’s dying or rescuing someone trapped on Mount Everest, but am I inspiring for getting out of bed in the morning?” Asked what the perks of life in a wheelchair are, Karni Liddell from Brisbane says, “I’m notorious for not just skipping lines, but bringing my posse with me. ‘ Oh, these 50 people are all my carers, come with me.’ ” Of non-disabled people using the disabled toilet, she says, “The funny thing is when they put on a limp for the 100m past the toilet.”
It’s an illuminating, moving at times and often laugh-out-loud show and these two program makers, who share a similar ethos of sensitive first-person storytelling combined with a nimble production model, might just be pointing to the future. Wednesday, 9.20pm, ABC.