When you speak to anyone face to face, as I did in Sydney with TV director Ivan O’Mahoney, of the doco Go Back To Where You Came From, you get to encounter the real person. How they move, talk and feel, rather than over the phone or through some cybernetic freeway.
It is in a lot ways this doco’s main theme, to see for real how actual people react when they are forced to interact, face to face, with real refugees and not as distant media bytes, or through the pithy and largely inaccurate summations of their plight by politicians, or journalists for that matter, who are under the pump to get their jobs done.
The motivation behind creating Go back To Where You Came From, as O’ Mahoney explained, is because, “this refugee debate, particularly in this country, is very polarised and is presented as a very black and white issue. You are either an out of touch lefty or a nutcase right-winger. The reality is that it’s not black or white, it’s grey – at it’s best.” “Our intention is not to come up with any solution or a point of view. I think that our ambition has been to illustrate there is a lot more nuances to this issue…and if we can do that, hopefully, we will have injected some kind of reality in the discussion,” O’Mahoney said.
Strangely enough this doco is very much like a Reality TV Show, which O’ Mahoney freely admits, only this time the stakes are not the usual first world concerns of beauty, sex or if you’re too fat or thin, but what it’s really like for refugees desperately running for their lives. The set up is that six ordinary Australians agree to challenge their preconceived notions about refugees and asylum seekers by embarking on a confronting 25 day journey.
They trace in reverse the journeys that refugees have taken to reach Australia. They travel to some of the most dangerous and desperate corners of the world, with no idea what is in store for them along the way.
They are purposefully deprived by the producers of this doco, of their wallets, phones and passports. They board a leaky refugee boat, are rescued mid-ocean, experience immigration raids in Malaysia, live in a Kenyan refugee camp and visit slums in Jordan before ultimately making it to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Iraq, protected by UN Peacekeepers and the US military. For some of them it’s their first time abroad. For all of them, it’s an epic journey and the most challenging experience of their lives. O’Mahoney has a background in journalism, having worked as a reporter and news producer for CNN, Channel 4, the BBC and 4 Corners, and said of this reality TV show format, “It has released me from the current affairs straight-jacket, because often as journalists we try to tell these stories that we feel are really important, but in doing so we find we are always reaching the same audience again and again. The same people watch 4 Corners or watch SBS every week,” he said. “What this format allowed us to do was to find a whole new audience for this issue and our job was to make the important, interesting.”
Interesting presumably to everyone, or what is often cited as Middle Australia, and not for the already converted. But even the politicians, like Gillard and Abbott, are attempting to appeal to this ambiguous middle ground, but maybe not for the same holistic reasons as O’Mahoney. The real difference between this doco and Abbott visiting the detention centre on Nauru recently, is that the camps these six Australians go to are real and active, compared to Abbott’s sanitized postscript experience, where really it looks like he’s blithely choosing an appropriate boarding school for troublesome children.
Screens on SBS at 8.30 pm on 21, 22 and 23 of June.