Go back to where you came from, aired on SBS last night, is a three part series with a unique approach to educating it’s audience on the complex issues of boat arrivals and refugees in Australia.
In part one we’re introduced to the six participants, three men and three women, who have a diverse range of views on asylum seekers, from understanding and compassion, to angry rejection. There’s a young woman Raquel for example,who hates Africans, a position that presents something of a challenge for her when she’s sent to stay for three nights with a refugee family from Burandi and Congo.
Interestingly, while Raquel discovers herself capable of genuine empathy after listening to the sufferings endured by her hostess, she later declares that they were just one nice family, doesn’t mean she’s going to get friendly with Africans per se, whom she still doesn’t like.
The use of reality TV techniques, such as dramatic music and the friendly but authoritative manner of the program’s host, refugee researcher Dr David Corlett, are reminiscent of Big Brother and Survivor. I read this as ironic comment on reality TV shows that similarly challenge participants to take time out of their comfort zone to see what they can become, but unlike the SBS series, take no interest in anything other than the personal emotional journey.
In widening the focus the series becomes part reality TV, part documentary. This is a fascinating combination.
Already the participants have begun a psychological process of decompensation, as they’re thrust into situations entirely foreign to them, including embarking on a leaky boat for an unknown destination, bereft of passports, wallets, phones, money and ID. Just like real boat people. Tempers fray, harsh words are exchanged, and the experience may well have given Rae, a 63 year old retired social worker, pause for thought. At the beginning of the show Rae told us that when the boat was wrecked at Christmas Island last December she thought: “Serves you bastards right.”
While not agreeing with all of their views, nonetheless I very much admire this motley crew. They can never experience the life threatening dangers and torments boat people and refugees actually endure, but they are willing to go way outside of their physical, emotional and psychological comfort zones. This is brave, even if there is a camera crew and later, UN and US troops guarding them as they enter into dangerous territory. It’s a long way from Cronulla beaches, idyllic farmlets and safe lives with people who love you. All credit to them for volunteering to take themselves into something completely different.
The series promises intriguing insights into human behaviour under extraordinary stress, combined with profound insights into what asylum seekers and refugees are actually fleeing. As a social experiment it’s got to be unique. With the wide range of views represented by the participants, there’s someone for everyone to identify with, and this is smart. It wouldn’t have been nearly as useful if the group were like minded either way.
There seems to be little concern about the presence of cameras. I don’t think anyone is performing, though they may certainly be restraining themselves at times. It’s an unnatural situation in every way, and nobody’s going to behave as they do in their own homes without surveillance. Be that as it may, the participants seem to be honest in their expression of emotion and opinion, and this is one of the most powerful aspects of the program as they react, for example, to their initial visit to the Villawood Detention Centre where they talk to Iraqi detainees.
The program is a powerful argument for how people’s attitudes can shift when they are face to face with human suffering. All the propagandists from John Howard on have recognized the need to hide boat people away in desert camps and behind razor wire, to prevent their faces and their stories being known. Dehumanizing them by rendering them faceless continues to be a primary tool in the manipulation of Australian public opinion.
The first rule of propaganda is to stereotype your target. Go back to where you came from challenges the propaganda head on, and for this alone, I’m glad to see it out there.