Poverty porn? Not really, but uncomfortable at times…

…and inspiring at others. Such is my conclusion about Struggle Street, which finished on SBS last night. I have written several posts about it already.

Of course it could have taken an entirely different emphasis. Here I especially recall 900 Neighbours, an ABC documentary from 2006. I posted about that at the time when I was living just down the hill from a then notorious Struggle Street, or Suicide Towers:

Surry Hills reality

04 JAN 2007

One program in ABC-TV’s 2007 line-up that I am looking forward to is 900 NEIGHBOURS, a documentary by Brendan Fletcher, which was shown during the Sydney Film Festival in 2006.

It’s that big brown building you can see from all over the city. One of Sydney’s most famous and infamous buildings — Northcott. It began life as Chifley’s dream solution to post-war public housing. Over the years the dream has fallen foul, as the building became synonymous in the public mind with suicides, murders and drug dealers. In collaboration with BIG hART, Northcott residents have worked hard over the last three years to turn that perception around. This culminated in a performance piece, involving artists and tenants, which became one of the hits of the 2006 Sydney Festival. 900 Neighbours takes you behind this process and behind those big brown walls and reveals a side of Surry Hills most Sydneysiders would never dream existed. It paints a vivid portrait of the community that is Northcott — warts and all, for sure, but all the more human for it.

The 900 neighbours are my neighbours; in fact I am heading for the Northcott in a couple of hours to go to the Library, to check Lord Malcolm’s mail, and to see if his plants need watering.

northcott

On Struggle Street I commend Media Watch for calling out the tabloid reactions for what they were:

Because the paper framed the Struggle Street debate as class warfare, with the private enterprise Tele championing the common man against those taxpayer funded smug bigoted snobs at SBS.
And typically, it mixed this in with nasty personal attacks.

THE TV executives behind SBS’s controversial series on Mt Druitt families have multi-million dollar property portfolios and live on easy street, not struggle street.
SBS boss Michael Ebeid, 49, lives with his younger boyfriend, who runs a boutique travel company.
— The Daily Telegraph, 6th May, 2015

Now how on earth is the sexuality of the SBS boss or the age of his partner—who has been with Ebeid for 13 years—of any relevance to this debate?

We put that question to the Tele’s reporter Janet Fife-Yeomans. We’ve not heard back.
But Michael Ebeid told Media Watch:

Clearly she was trying to belittle me and my relationship and make out I’ve got something for younger boys.
— Michael Edeid, Managing Director, SBS, 8th May, 2015

Ebeid claims that Fife-Yeomans rang his partner’s office four times and said she would name his travel company.
So how does the Telegraph justify that?
Perhaps we should ring the editor’s wife to ask her.
And … after all this fuss, what is the wash up?
Well, the first episode of Struggle Street broke all SBS records for a home-produced program with 1.3 million viewers, around 4 times its normal audience.
And while debate about its merits and ethics will doubtless continue … one thing is sure. It’s put poverty and disadvantage on the map. And that has to be good.

It is worth visiting last Monday’s episode of QandA. Some substantial questions were raised, particularly by a student from Mount Druitt.

JOHANNA LARKIN: I’m here with 20 students from a school in Mt Druitt, Loyola Senior High School. Last Wednesday, SBS aired the documentary Struggle Street on the issues in Mt Druitt. As people living in the community, we were appalled at the elitism and disconnected privilege shown by SBS, which showed the community without an understanding of its context and without the informed consent of the participants. We therefore ask: is all coverage good coverage? When does our personal stories become the ownership of the media?
TONY JONES: Well said. Nakkiah Lui? Thank you very much. Well expressed question and Nakkiah, you actually were brought up in Mt Druitt, so give us your impressions of the documentary.
NAKKIAH LUI: Yeah, I think that’s a really good question. That was really well articulated. It makes me proud to be a Mt Druitt girl. I know, Loyola. They used to be our nemesis school. That’s a really good question. I had the same thoughts. What is the price of exposure? I mean, for many people, the level of poverty that exists within Mt Druitt was really unfamiliar but then, when looking at – you know, I was reading my Twitter as I watched the show and the mocking and vilification of people who just didn’t have a fair go like the rest of the country, for me, it was like what is the price and is a documentary effective when there is that much room for misinterpretation, for the subjects to be mocked and vilified? I think, though, we still have to watch the last two hours. For me, myself, you know, watching that poverty depicted wasn’t unfamiliar. I know somebody made a joke about on Twitter “There is a tarp over the washing line so there must be a wedding”. Yeah, great, right. Thanks Australia! And I – you know, I’ve seen tarps on the washing lines. That being said, what did concern me was the missing representation of the working class. You know, the fact that you can be engaged in the workforce and still be struggling and still be caught in the poverty cycle and that there are many people working who are one step away from going away into the welfare cycle or have just left it and I think that that was quite irresponsible by the filmmakers to not include that aspect of Mt Druitt.
TONY JONES: Did you consider it to be poverty porn? That’s an expression that has been used to describe this documentary?
NAKKIAH LUI: I think that question comes down to the subjects of it and when you have subjects saying that that is not an accurate depiction of us then, yes, it does fall into poverty porn because they do not have ownership over that representation. As a writer and as an actor, ownership over my representation, my ability to tell my own story is what is empowering. The fact the SBS had a two hour meeting with subjects and I think it was the mayor of Blacktown – I may be wrong on this – they had a two hour meeting prior to the showing of the – the airing of the show and they still didn’t show the subjects the documentary at that point. For me that’s worrying. The one thing we can say about Struggle Street is that this is a community that has been let down by its governments. You know, and it is rather ironic that we have Struggle Street showing this week that we have the budget being announced when we had our Prime Minister come out and say $185,000 is roughing it. The subjects of this documentary are living on less than 10% of that. How disconnected is that? Do we have a Government that is disconnected or is it cruel? I’m not too sure. I think if we can have a – you know if we can have a worthwhile, engaged conversation about poverty, whether or not, you know, you’re living on welfare or whether you’re engaged in the workforce, whether you’re from western Sydney or another outer suburb, I think that’s the best thing that can come out of Struggle Street….

My overall reaction to last night’s two hour episode was, as I said at the beginning, frequently to be moved and even inspired by much of what I saw, uncomfortable as other segments were. There is no doubt that one consistent theme was the deleterious effect governments’ cost-cutting can have and is having. The other thing is that I know by simple observation a parallel series could have been made here in Wollongong and some of its suburbs. This scene is within walking distance of where I sit right now:

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And bong-sucking hopelessness, ice rage, and many another social ill have touched us here at The Bates Motel rather too many times in the past five years. (Comparatively quiet lately.)

Overall Struggle Street has done us all a great favour. I fear too that some of the reactions – see for example in Compassion runs out for controversial Struggle Street finale – tell us rather more about the viewer(s) concerned than about what was viewed. I lean more heavily towards reactions like this:

But the sight of a young man actively seeking employment and giving back to his community managed to break through the negativity. Chris, 22, earned congratulations for scoring a job and trying to ease the strained relationship between his mentally ill mother and his aunt and carer….

It was these stories of optimism punctuating the bleak subject matter that struck Angelo Fadera, who grew up in Mount Druitt.

Like many current and former Mount Druitt residents, Mr Fadera was dreading the judgment that would be indiscriminately heaped on his old stomping ground if Struggle Street failed to portray the good with the bad.

“I was pretty angry last week … it was poking fun at the suburb,” Mr Fadera, 29, said of the first episode.

“But I felt like it was more optimistic this week. It was a lot more balanced and not as patronising,” he said.

chris

Chris (22) in last night’s Struggle Street

See also former NSW Premier Nathan Rees today.

… If ever we need reminding of how essential a good public education system is, Struggle Street does it. The ability of an education system to turn a life around is immense. Youngsters are born into poverty or dysfunction through no fault of their own. Each child deserves a chance to escape that landscape, and the single biggest thing we can provide as a community is a good education.

Life for William, Bob and Billy Jo may have been very different had they been better educated. People aren’t born as dysfunctional kids; when their families let them down, we need to pick them up, and good schooling is an essential element.

Bob and Billy Jo emptied my reservoir of empathy. The only way for me to top it back up is to imagine myself in their shoes. Let’s say I’m toothless, without ID, broke and unable to read and write. Do I move into the wide world, or do I stay put, knowing that I at least have somewhere to sleep, a social circle of sorts, and a familiarity with my surrounds? Most of us would go with the latter…

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