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
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