AWK­WARD QUES­TIONS

Last year’s sur­prise ABC hit You Can’t Ask That re­turns for a sec­ond, even more con­fronting sea­son of re­veal­ing an­swers to queries most of us would hes­i­tate to raise in per­son

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

It is pleas­ing to see the re­turn of ABC’s You Can’t Ask That, the off­beat and lat­eral fac­tual in­ter­view se­ries. It is an ex­er­cise in stereo­type-bust­ing that gained a strong fol­low­ing for its in­no­va­tive min­i­mal­ist ap­proach to tele­vi­sion when it pre­miered last year. Ten 25-minute episodes first fea­tured on iView be­came prime-time pro­gram­ming on the ABC’s main chan­nel. And it at­tracted a sur­pris­ingly large num­ber of reg­u­lar view­ers — around the 600,000 mark, which is more than the view­er­ship of many free-to-air re­al­ity shows on com­mer­cial TV this dis­mal year.

In­spired by a com­bi­na­tion of short video seg­ments and ask-me-any­thing fo­rums from a range of on­line me­dia out­lets in­clud­ing Red­dit, the BBC, Buz­zfeed, and Huff­in­g­ton Post, this pop­u­lar style of on­line con­tent has been clev­erly ex­panded and moulded for prime-time TV.

Its cre­ators are Kirk Docker and Aaron Smith, both highly ex­pe­ri­enced as orig­i­na­tors of slightly off-the-grid TV ma­te­rial that is as stylish as it is thought-pro­vok­ing. Smith is a cin­e­matog­ra­pher, di­rec­tor and pro­ducer whose ex­pe­ri­ence spans doc­u­men­tary, drama and TV com­edy, and 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.

Smith and Docker de­cided to ask what would hap­pen if you gave peo­ple the op­por­tu­nity to ask so­ci­ety’s out­siders about is­sues they would nor­mally shy away from broach­ing, if only for fear of be­ing of­fen­sive or caus­ing em­bar­rass­ment or even ha­rass­ment. And You Can’t Ask That turned out to be one of the most di­verse projects to grace Aus­tralian TV, fea­tur­ing wheelchair users, the short-statured, Mus­lims, the polyamorous, ex­pris­on­ers and, well, fat peo­ple.

“We de­cided to talk to the peo­ple who we be­lieved were judged most in our so­ci­ety,” the cre­ators say in their pro­duc­tion notes. “Most of our guests have to deal with judg­ment ev­ery day.” (The show is par­tic­u­larly rel­e­vant in the light of the ran­corous de­bate over changes in the Racial Dis­crim­i­na­tion Act and the need some see to wa­ter down pro­vi­sions meant to pro­tect the vul­ner­a­ble, peo­ple of­fended or in­sulted on the ba­sis of their race, eth­nic­ity or faith.)

Th­ese are peo­ple with whom most of us rarely have the op­por­tu­nity to en­gage in frank con­ver­sa­tion, much as we might of­ten ask th­ese ques­tions in our heads when we en­counter them at a dis­tance, where they of­ten suf­fer our side­ways glances. It is too easy to sub­jec­tively treat them as ob­jects. “We judge each other con­stantly — think of the judg­ments you make about other peo­ple in the line at the su­per­mar­ket,” Smith and Docker sug­gest. “Once you judge some­one, you write them off, you as­sume things about them and you close the door on un­der­stand­ing them.” So they de­cided to talk to the peo­ple who they be­lieved were judged most in our so­ci­ety, “peo­ple who have to deal with judg­ment ev­ery day”. And the new sea­son is even more con­fronting than the first — though equally en­ter­tain­ing; it fea­tures blind peo­ple, sui­cide at­tempt sur­vivors, chil­dren of same-sex mar­riages, those with Down’s syn­drome, re­cent war veter­ans, S&M afi­ciona­dos, refugees, cen­te­nar­i­ans and peo­ple suf­fer­ing from ex­treme fa­cial dif­fer­ences. They an­swer anony­mous on­line queries, col­lated by the pro­duc­ers, in front of a seem­ingly static cam­era. It’s a form of al­most height­ened the­atri­cal col­lage that is not only so­cially con­scious but witty and of­ten quite po­etic. They are not asked to per­form or com­pete but just to be them­selves. The guests con­trol their ex­pe­ri­ence on the show — there is no nar­ra­tor — which al­lows them the dig­nity and re­spect needed to speak to the au­di­ence and hon­estly an­swer their ques­tions. The style is spare, like its premise, built around the no­tion of di­rect ad­dress, break­ing down the fourth wall, with the par­tic­i­pants ac­knowl­edg­ing our pres­ence as spec­ta­tors. They are so wel­com­ing, though, that we never feel we are in­trud­ing; it is as though we are in a priv­i­leged po­si­tion, gain­ing ac­cess to truths not avail­able to others.

The set-up is lit­tle changed from the first se­ries. The show again be­gins with the cam­era fo­cused on a bare stu­dio set. At its cen­tre is a grey­ish back­cloth; there are a few lights on stands and two white stools in front of the scrim. Very Brechtian it is, too.

As mu­sic be­gins, graph­ics flash up and across the back­cloth, voices re­peat­ing the sen­tences as they ap­pear across the screen: “What’s it like to kill a hu­man be­ing?” “Tell me why you’re a sick per­vert?” “Have you been brought up gay?” “Do you think you’re ugly?” “Why aren’t you dead yet?” The mu­sic then segues into a beau­ti­ful pi­ano track from com­poser An­drew Samp­ford that drifts through the back­ground of the in­ter­views, while an­i­mated graph­ics from Shane Sakkeus coun­ter­point the cen­tral com­ments from the sub­jects, flash­ing up on the screen around their heads.

The first episode fea­tures a group of blind peo­ple who lap up the at­ten­tion as the pro­duc­ers try to get them set­tled on the stools and ex­plain where the cards bear­ing the ques­tions in braille are placed just out of shot. “Are you go­ing to show that bit where we bumped into each other?” one asks. “Prob­a­bly,” comes the an­swer, to the amuse­ment of all. They are grouped in pairs be­fore cam­eras that are fre­quently re­ar­ranged to pro­vide vary­ing per­spec­tives.

The ques­tions range from “Why are you blind?” to “How many times a day do you walk into things?” to “Does it mat­ter what the per­son you date looks like?” When asked “What do you ac­tu­ally see? Black­ness?” Lau­ren Hen­ley from Mel­bourne, who lost her vi­sion as the re­sult of a car ac­ci­dent when her face hit the steer­ing wheel, says: “I’ve never been able to un­der­stand this but I see ei­ther bright pink or bright green. It’s wa­ter­melon green and wa­ter­melon pink.” (Her eyes are not real, she says, but made of plas­tic: “I lost one once in a salad bowl.”) Law pro­fes­sor Ron McCal­lum, a ge­nial man who has been blind since birth, says: “I don’t know what black is be­cause I haven’t seen light, I don’t re­ally un­der­stand dark.” He says he doesn’t have a vis­ual cor­tex: “I some­time think my brain is like a com­puter hard disc with some of the pan­els miss­ing.”

When asked “How do you know you’re not dressed like an id­iot?”, Matt Form­ston, a surfer and ath­lete from Syd­ney, ex­plains: “As a blind per­son you ask ques­tions a lot about what I’m wear­ing to­day, is that OK? And that is ac­tu­ally a re­ally bad ques­tion be­cause peo­ple don’t give you hon­est feed­back about your­self.” Hen­ley says “I haven’t made too many mis­takes”, but then re­calls a yel­low dress that her mother pointed out was com­pletely see-through.

Asked “If you could see one thing in the world, what would it be?” the pro­fes­sor an­swers that he would love to see a printed page, “just one”. Bry­ony Bala­ton-Chrimes, an ebul­lient sub­ject from Mel­bourne, an­swers from her heart: “I would want to see the faces of the peo­ple that I love most in the world.”

This highly orig­i­nal fac­tual for­mat has grabbed at­ten­tion in Europe, with re­cent li­cence deals con­firmed for Italy, Swe­den, The Nether­lands, Spain and France, with Euro­peans as fas­ci­nated as we are by in­no­va­tive TV that goes where doc­u­men­tary has not gone be­fore. In ad­di­tion to Europe, the for­mat has also been snapped up in the US and Brazil, ac­cord­ing to the ABC, which is ob­vi­ously de­lighted that a show launched mod­estly on iView has proved to have such a reach with in­ter­na­tional broad­cast­ers, for­mat pro­duc­ers and dig­i­tal plat­forms.

It is so de­light­fully min­i­mal­is­tic in its vis­ual de­sign and its tex­tu­ral or­gan­i­sa­tion but still de­vel­ops an imag­i­na­tive en­gage­ment out of all pro­por­tion to its stark­ness as a form of jour­nal­is­tic in­quiry. And while its aim as a doc­u­men­tary se­ries is wor­thy and sober, it is also witty and amus­ing and, on oc­ca­sions, laugh-out-loud funny. Surely few other doco se­ries en­gage with the com­plex­ity, den­sity and con­tra­dic­tions of those liv­ing with dis­ad­van­tage.

This is ob­ser­va­tional doc­u­men­tary to the core, us­ing no voiceover nar­ra­tion, no in­ter­me­di­aries or com­men­tary by so­called ex­perts, noth­ing to hin­der our sense of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with those who present them­selves so coura­geously be­fore that white screen within a screen. 9.30pm, ABC. Thurs­day,

Sui­cide at­tempt sur­vivors Riki Ben­ton and Hannah Siemers ap­pear in episode three

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