We’ve been terribly remiss here in not already having a post to mark what is possibly one of the most important documentary series to show on television for many years, whether you find it on balance enlightening or tending more to the manipulative regarding the opinions about and the facts regarding the plight of asylum seekers. The #GoBackSBS hashtag on Twitter over the last few days has been running hot and garnered worldwide attention for this show which takes so-called “ordinary Australians” on a reverse-journey – from Australia back to where some of the immigrant refugees they meet at the start came from. (If you missed the programs, you can catch them on the SBS website)
The participants undergo many confronting experiences, and some previously hard-held opinions are harshly shaken:
Stunned, the participants are invited to join a dramatic midnight immigration raid. After this experience, some comment that they would rather board a boat and take their chances than suffer the uncertain fate of refugee life in Malaysia.[source]
The participants generally held very strong opinions about the refugee settlement issue in Australia one way or the other: some of those views turned 180 degrees, others not so much.
Mr Hassan said the producers and SBS had warned participants there was a chance they could be castigated for their views. But as one of the more outspoken and intransigent, he can expect to cop more flak than most.
Not that he is overly concerned. ”I’m using this as a conditioning thing,” he said. ”If I ever do get into politics, it’s good practice.” [source]
Much vitriol was expressed towards one of the participants, a young woman who openly said that she “doesn’t like Africans”. This seemed to (conveniently perhaps?) displace deeper examination for some of the more complex issues raised by the program, although it also had its place in provoking internal journeys for the viewers:
This moment reinforced for me the power of the personal story – of what happens when you put people face-to-face. And it wasn’t just about Raquel and Maisara. It was about me and Raquel.[…] while I’m watching Raquel being forced to confront her basic prejudices about people with different colour skin I’m also confronting my own attitudes to people who are “different”, people whose values I do not share. [source]
While the quality of the filmmaking is good, the laudatory descriptions of the program as being even-handed are overstated. It is stacked with commentary, from the narration, to the structure, to the guide, Dr David Corlett, who is immersed in the refugee industry, is highly political, and in 2003 wrote a Quarterly Essay, ”Sending Them Home”, with Robert Manne. This is the producers’ idea of dispassionate objectivity.
Last August, the ABC’s Four Corners presented a searing program, ”Smugglers’ Paradise”, which presented a far more accurate and confronting picture of the people smuggling trade to Australia. It was reality TV that was real. This new series has real people in real places, but it remains an exercise in manipulation for everyone involved.
From a purely production point of view, the media strategy for this series was groundbreaking:
And while the show itself is brilliant, there’s also some seriously good social media integration around it. You can view the show online (which was perfect for me as I missed the first few minutes). There’s no waiting 24 hours etc. I think there is a problem with viewing via iPad, but the immediate availability of the show allows late-comers to still engage. Brilliant work from SBS.
It’s not just must-see TV – it’s a model for the future of what content publishing should be.