Beyond the Blinkers – SMH (14/02/94)

The Guide
14 February 1994
Sydney Morning Herald

WHEN the producers of Neighbours made a concerted attempt to portray Australian life last year, they plonked a family of Asian descent into Ramsay Street.

It was a disaster.

Grundy’s version of a multicultural Australia was so clumsily handled that it’s hard to imagine they’ll bother again.

Yet Neighbours isn’t alone. Mainstream television in Australia has always been happy to avoid the challenges presented in mirroring our diverse racial make-up.

Why? Is it that Anglo-Saxon producers and directors underestimate the talent out there? Is it that they feel Anglos aren’t interested in the ways of people from other countries? Do they look at SBS’s rather slim ratings and translate that to mean that nobody else cares, so why should they?

Producer and director Franco di Chiera is one who – given his determination to dramatise the lives of those from many backgrounds – has a right to be slightly narky about the industry blinkers.

Yet he remains pragmatic. “The reason I’m not that critical is that, let’s face it, it’s a part of the evolution of our identity as Australians,” says the 36-year-old. “It was only in the mid-1970s that we started hearing Australian accents reading the news, for God’s sake. We’ve come a long way -let’s not push our luck too far.

“We have to wait for people from a range of backgrounds to end up in those creative roles and decision-making positions. That’s going to take a long time. I’m not all that critical of the mainstream industry, to tell you the truth.

“There are people that are well-meaning (when it comes to presenting ethnic characters), but there’s none of the real-life passion behind it. They might have made an effort to research it, but in the end it becomes sterile or boring or depressing. There’s no life in it. I’m interested in getting people to understand through entertaining them or touching them.”

This explains Under The Skin. In 1988, the seed for this 12-part series of one-off, 30-minute dramas, was planted. Di Chiera had just finished work on the controversial A Change of Face, one of SBS’s flagship documentaries for the Bicentenary.

That piece challenged the notion of Australian identity in film and television. And it inspired di Chiera to continue his exploration of the area. Instead of complaining on screen about the lack of realism and opportunities for those of non-Anglo background, he decided his next project, Under the Skin, would be of more practical help.

SBS expressed interest, but was unable to commit anywhere near the $2.65 million he figured he needed to fund the project. Film Australia then jumped on board, offering help as part of its national interest program, as did the Office of Multicultural Affairs and the NSW Ethnic Affairs Commission. “I take my hat off to all of them,” says di Chiera, “because Under the Skin nearly fell into a big black hole on several occasions. I sent out 18 submissions in the last week of raising the funds. We were $50,000 short and other investors needed to know if it would go ahead. If not, they had to put their money elsewhere. Thankfully, I had two bites.”

In 1989, he placed advertisements requesting submissions for half-hour dramas representing all facets of Australian life. Greeks alongside Fijians, Anglos with Koories, Chinese with Italians and other Europeans.

He was bombarded with more than 1,000 synopses.

While an outlook varying from the norm on local television was necessary to satisfy requirements of some investing bodies, di Chiera is quick to point out that this was no token exercise in multiculturalism. The quality of the work was the bottom line.

“It took six months to a year to assess them all,” he says. “It took a year to raise the development funds, a year to write them, a year to raise the production money and a year to make them. Hence, here we are in 1994.”

Six years after the first steps were taken, SBS, di Chiera’s Realworld Pictures and Film Australia, are the proud parents of Under the Skin, filmed all over Australia, by all sorts of Australians.

Shot on video to save money (and only rarely suffering for it) Under the Skin presents 12 self-contained dramas, which range in theme from the effect of the military coup in Fiji on Fijian-Australians (Line Home), child abuse and Catholicism (Best Wishes), to a young boy’s friendship with an initially grumpy old man (Old Sam, Jasper and Mr Frank).

Pick another three from the lucky dip and you’ll discover three totally different storylines. Some will move you; others will lose you. This makes di Chiera happy.

But overseeing a body of work that acknowledged our varied pasts and presents was not his only motive. He also wanted to provide work for actors and directors who had either just finished their training, or had struggled, because of their ethnicity, to gain lead roles.

At the same time, di Chiera realised it would be wise to cast a bunch of well-known actors, not only to give the series a boosted profile, but to allow the inexperienced to work alongside those who know their craft.

Alwyn Kurts, Tina Bursill, John Jarratt, Nadine Garner, Norman Kaye, Barry Otto, Kerry Walker and Gwen Plumb are seen with younger actors such as Lawrie Watt, Maria-Louisa Abbate-Gentile, Marguerite Wesselinoff, Solomon Wong and Arthur Angel.

Bursill was heading for a holiday in Perth when her agent rang with news of the script for Long Way Round, a drama that is rather bald in its determination not to present a patronising, politically correct view of Aboriginal life.

Nineteen and pregnant, Chris struggles with the pressure from her Nan to take her child back to the bush to learn the proper ways. Bursill was particularly attracted to the way the script – while acknowledging vast differences in culture – emphasised the basic similarities in all clans.

“I said to my agent, ‘Well, I’ve got the special fare to Perth and I really need a break’, but they asked me to have a look and I read the script.

“It was more than all right,” she says. “I basically picked up the phone and said I’d do it. It was so precise and accurate in terms of portraying the inner conflict that families have. You know, it takes a long way round to get to the end result, and I endorsed that immediately. I did the job, and I loved it.”

Under the Skin already has one fan in Annita Keating. She launched the series at the Art Gallery of NSW.

“I have had many requests to speak on behalf of Australians who were born overseas,” she told the assembled throng. “I have preferred not to focus on that side of things. I have been an Australian for nearly half my life and I don’t think it’s necessary to keep discussing my ethnic background.

“However, when I spoke during Sydney’s Olympic bid in Monte Carlo about being a foreign-born Australian, the response was unbelievable. I had letters and faxes from people all over Australia. Other ‘new’ Australians who said: ‘Thanks for speaking on our behalf’, ‘Thanks for making our contribution important’.

“It really touched a chord. I think parts of Under the Skin will touch that same chord. Under the Skin is not about Australian multiculturalism. But it was possible because of it.”

Under the Skin follows The Movie Show on SBS every Wednesday at 8 pm. The first instalment, Dino, Where You Been?, with Nadine Garner, Frankie J. Holden and Arthur Angel, screens this week.

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