Watching Struggle Street May 15, 2015Posted by Editor21C in Community Engagement, Education Policy and Politics, Social Justice and Equity through Education.
Tags: Education and community, media representations of disadvantage
from Susanne Gannon
Watching Struggle Street has been an uncomfortable experience. As it was meant to be, and as it should be. It provides stark representations of poverty, drug addiction, physical and mental ill-health, family breakdown and the difficulties faced by particular individuals and families in the heart of our largest city. It’s been easy to become caught up in the vortex of emotions that began swirling around the program before we had seen any more of it than the promo. It has been difficult to decide when and how to write about it, and there has been much intelligent discussion about it during the last two weeks from people who live in Mt Druitt as well as outside commentators.
Even after the double screening of episodes two and three, which SBS promised would resolve widespread concerns about the first episode, there seems to be no consensus across social and mainstream media, except perhaps about the voiceover (which like many others I found both grating and patronizing). People who have criticized the show have been accused of lacking empathy and compassion, while people who are overwhelmed by emotion and horror have been positioned as middleclass voyeurs from the ‘eastern’ edges of the great urban sprawl. What does seem to be consistent is that many residents of Mount Druitt, in particular those individuals and organizations that were portrayed in the series, do feel profoundly misrepresented and reduced for the purposes of ‘drama’.
One of the problems with postcode poverty is the stigmatization of one particular area as the container of all these issues. As many people have noted, drug abuse, poverty and ill-health are widespread in contemporary Australia. And there are, without doubt, geographic pockets of endemic poverty and community vulnerability (or wide swathes if we turn to regional and rural Australia). However Struggle Street (Series 1, postcode 2770) does not tell us that. The problems begin for me from its opening sequence where the camera hovers over the tourist icons of the Opera House and Harbour Bridge (Voiceover: “Sparkling Sydney Harbour, gateway to a sun-bronzed Aussie lifestyle”), then zooms at rapid speed through tunnels and down highways (Sound effects: car engine, screaming rubber of tires on bitumen, brakes), and comes to a screeching stop at the sign “Mt Druitt: 45 Kms west of Sydney”.
The scene then cuts in rapid succession through the exterior of a graffiti covered fibro house, a disheveled interior (Off-screen dialogue young woman: ‘It’s just been trashed’), a tattooed torso, an arrest in the mall, and a mid-shot of man holding up a small bag of drugs (dialogue: ‘This is the shit is going to get us smashed”), a verandah with two men, one of them angry shouting and pointing his finger off screen (dialogue: “If anyone gives any of my kids any fucking drugs I’m going to tear them to fucking pieces, I don’t give a fuck if he’s a bikie, I don’t give a fuck if he’s God”), cut to a worried-looking teenage girl listening to the shouting, cut to man in the street leaning on a red car, holding a stubby of beer, wearing a “Drink Sensibly’ T-shirt. We are reeling already at the horrors of Mount Druitt and that is only the first 35 seconds of three hours of program extracted from the hundreds of thousands of hours of footage gathered over the six months that some residents of Mount Druitt were stalked by cameras. We find out the names and some of the stories of these people as the program unfolds but the relentless pace does not let up. Just to use this opening as an example, there is no way of entering the documentary without being separated from Mount Druitt and the people we see there. They are irrevocably ‘other’ to we viewers, who are from the first second of the filming positioned – by the commentary, the images and the editing – as tourists in the western suburbs.
Mount Druitt of course has long been the go-to place for media stereotyping of the western suburbs, which the film-makers would have known if they had any history in this country. But this seems to be an English import made by KEO Films ‘Australia’. The formula was honed in their UK series Skint: a postcode, poverty, key characters who are multiply disadvantaged and colourful visually and in their language, which is translated with subtitles, even when they are speaking English (see Skint Season 3, Episode 3 at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AeZmaEidAJk l) Some of the scripting seems remarkably similar, though oddly, in comparison to Struggle Street, the narrator of Skint Series 3 uses ‘we’ occasionally in the script as he talks about the unemployed, homeless and criminal residents of Merthyr Tydfil, the Welsh former coalmining town that is the focus of Series 3. What seems to be avoided in Struggle Street is any reference to social policy and the responsibilities of governments and the wider society to our fellow citizens. There is no consideration or possibility of social policy as a factor that might be mobilized to address endemic poverty. A couple of small-scale community organizations are depicted but these too are portrayed as shambolic and ineffective (and as QANDA revealed, they are already at risk of losing their funding).
In Struggle Street, as in Skint, it’s all up to you and the decisions that you make as an individual and a family about your life. Wrong decisions lead to bad outcomes, and all we see in Struggle Street are wrong decisions, or decisions that seem to be doomed or that come too late. There isn’t any sense of the multiple supports and resources and the careful case management and participatory approaches that might make a difference in addressing youth mental ill-health, methamphetamine and heroin addiction and many other issues that pile up in Struggle Street.
There is some empathy here and there, in the story arc and in individual scenes, and we know that the characters want their lives to turn around but there is little indication of how this might be achieved. Their own attempts to do things differently are most often portrayed as failures. In the final episode, even the weather conspires to ruin the community event that one character has been working on, and the birthday party surprise is ruined when one of the guests comes around during the preparations. We do see lots of love but this is wrapped in a condescending package that mocks rather than respects the people who gave their stories and their time to the KEO camera people and interviewers.
The ethics of representation and informed consent (versus the blanket ‘waivers’) in this program, or in the ‘realist documentary’ form that SBS claimed for Struggle Street, are worthy of much greater attention. The promo material for Struggle Street claims that it is ‘fly on the wall observational documentary’, that it ‘gives a voice to those doing it tough’ and that it is ‘raw, honest and unfiltered’. By now it is clear to all involved that, like all television, no matter what the pitch from KEO films was at the beginning, it is a carefully constructed and artfully edited text with the intention of sensationalizing disadvantage.
Arguably, the most vulnerable in the community have been made more vulnerable through their engagement with Struggle Street. Even if it isn’t conventional, as SBS’s content manager claimed, it’s worth considering how the program might have been different if there had been a more participatory approach. Why not have community meetings or consultations through the process of film making and editing? Why not provide opportunities for deepening the conversations around poverty and ill-health and how these are experienced by people, why not give them a voice in richer ways than we have seen? Wouldn’t it have been interesting if there had been some media training made available to young people from this area of high unemployment, for example internships might have been embedded into the large Screen Australia grant that funded the project (as scholarships are in large ARC research grants)?
Where is the additional programming from SBS that nuances the arguments – like the post-program panel of participants and advocates from Go back to where you came from? What about talking to the school principals, vocational and alternative education providers about the opportunities that are being made available and the further investment in human capital and potential that is still required? Where are the politicians, beyond the mayor who is such an obvious champion of the beleaguered people in his electorate?
And it is beholden on SBS I think, when they get over their excitement about their high ratings, to go back and speak to the people of Mount Druitt again about the inadvertent impacts of the program on the people who were its subjects and to ask what they can do for the community that, in some ways, it has savaged. It might look at its own ethical guidelines, the agreements it makes as it outsources its programming, and most importantly, the promises it makes to its participants in its programming.
In this instance, the ‘Six million stories and counting’ that used to be SBS’s slogan seems to be reduced to one overarching story, the same old story that has been told again and again and again of this part of the city. For some of the other stories of Mount Druitt and of living on Struggle Street, I recommend starting at the following links:
ABC QANDA May 11 http://www.abc.net.au/tv/qanda/txt/s4212658.htm
Mt Druitt – St Mary’s Standard May 13 http://newslocal.newspaperdir
Add your own links in the comment boxes below.
Associate Professor Susanne Gannon is Equity Program leader in the Centre for Educational Research at the University of Western Sydney, Australia, which will host a conference in late October 2015 on ‘Resisting Educational Inequality: Reframing policy and practice in schools serving vulnerable communities’. Her 2009 paper ‘Rewriting the road to nowhere’ on media representations of Mount Druitt can be accessed here:
She is also a Board member of Westwords: The Western Sydney Young People’s Literature Development Project which aims to celebrate the diverse stories of young people and communities in western Sydney http://westwords.com.au