A new series aims to take view­ers out of their com­fort zone and into the lives of so­ci­ety’s out­siders

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - You Can’t Ask That,

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.

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