When John Safran delivered his first cut of his episode of Who the hell are we? at SBS he had walked away from the documentary project and started questioning research that told a more presentable story.
But hire John Safran, you get John Safran.
Thankfully SBS not only loved what they saw, they wanted more.
“They really, really wanted it. As soon as we sent them a cut, where I’m kind of undermining what the official story is, they immediately said, “Oh, my God, just do it.” This is what we want!’” he says TV tonight.
“I was told the neat version that everything was fine with the detained Jews. And I was like, ‘Let’s not do this.’ But the design of the show was that if there were Jews in the First Fleet, we had to cover for them. So it kind of forced me to go into different stories to find the little “gnarly” bits.
“I’m really comfortable with SBS, because they kind of understand where I’m from and how it’s so appropriate for SBS because I’m an insider / outsider. Many people who belong to minorities feel this way. It’s not ‘Woe is me, I’m a minority in Australia’, but you’re still like an insider and an outsider… that’s why it fits so well with SBS.
Safran covers the Jewish chapter of the three-part series, which also features Adam Liaw on Chinese immigration history forgotten and Cal Wilson on New Zealand stories being overlooked.
Among Safran’s stories is the story of Esther Abrahams who boarded the Lady Penrhyn in Sydney in 1788, and later married Major George Johnston.
“She essentially becomes the First Lady of the colony,” she continues. “The way you were presented in the research was ‘This is great! A land of opportunity and freedom for Jews!’ Not like in Europe. But when I spoke to her great-great-great-great-great-granddaughter about her, you found out that the inmates were not allowed to profess any religion publicly. They had to go to an Anglican church on Sunday.
“I asked, ‘Is that what he would have wanted?’ and she said, “No, of course not!”
“You may be upwardly mobile as a Jew as long as you renounce your Judaism, have your children baptized, show up at church… so it’s obviously a little more complicated.”
Safran highlights anti-Semitic poetry from the works of Henry Lawson and Norman Lindsay.
“They are the first people who created the story of what it means to be Australian. Because before that, it was more like, ‘We’re British, and we happen to be on this other continent.’ But then Henry Lawson and the people around him really started to define what it means to be an Australian. But it’s really interesting that while it was happening, Henry Lawson also tried the Jews. Another poet blamed the Jews for the drought in Australia. So when I saw that, I realized it definitely wasn’t as simple as the Jews who came here and were accepted as white.”
Delves into the story of legendary WW1 general Sir John Monash who led a brigade at Gallipoli and, bizarrely, while filming scenes at Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance encounters far-right extremists taking social media photos outside to promote neo-Nazi values. According to Safran, this is a version of the story that only makes sense if you don’t know that John Monash was Jewish.
Safran also considers whether Jews who escaped the Holocaust were finally safe from persecution in multicultural post-war Australia and an ambitious plan to relocate Jews from WWII Europe to the Kimberley.
“I had vaguely heard of actual talks to create a Jewish homeland in the Kimberley, but I really knew nothing about it. So it was nice to go up there and dig deeper. But even then I sorted out my little tangled situation—they never asked the natives. How messed up is that?” he proposes.
Religion has always figured prominently in Safran’s work, whether he was crucified in the Philippines, exploring exorcism, voodoo, or running naked through Jerusalem in his first work, a short doco contest Run around the world in 1997.
He’s not sure how his community will receive his latest work, he’s skeptical that pundits will find him mocked for focusing on facts already understood in the community, and others wonder why “My aunt came in 1930 and founded the first teapot cup factory Why didn’t you cover it?
But religion and culture still fascinate him.
“To be involved in Jewish culture there will be rituals…there are Friday night meals with the family, lighting candles and saying a prayer to God in Hebrew – but do most Jews really take it to that level? Or is it a cultural ritual? Do you know what I mean?” he asks.
“I go to the synagogue quite often – and the rabbi gets very annoyed when he reads things where I say this – but it’s really difficult to unravel the culture. They are there for counter cultural reasons, mystical reasons, religious reasons or whatever. But I’m fascinated by religious rituals and mysticism. I feel like I’m Jewish, might as well dig deeper into this.
“This is kind of what the people who give the green light to my work want.
“The creative side, the storytelling side of me gets a lot of feedback that I look into religion and culture is what people want. They don’t want me to talk about these other things. So I sort of answer that.
“I’m not complaining. But it’s like if I dabble too much in something else, suddenly people’s eyes glaze over. ‘John, you’re not the one wanting to talk about this.’”
Safran continues to write books, and while he is promoting his SBS documentary in the mainstream media, he largely avoids it.
As one who entered the Australian media as an anarchist disruptor, has Safran mellowed and does he acknowledge the change 25 years later?
“Every time I go out to do a new project, I find that the background of the world has changed in some way in regards to recording and filming. The big part is of course that now everyone has a camera in their phone. So if I go to protest, to cover it for one of my books, everyone films everything. It’s so different from when I started, and I had to sell the idea of why I’m shooting or whatever,” she recalls.
“Now it’s just like ‘Why shouldn’t I film? Everyone else here is filming!’
“There’s also this thing now where if I’m at a protest, I get filmed by neo-Nazis and they upload that stuff and then it gets this whole weird thing…. It’s like, “John’s hanging out with neo-Nazis.” On the one hand, I don’t care about him. But their point is ‘Ooh, is that problematic?’ So the whole context of the world has changed. But I find it funny and it just means I have to zig zag.
“I’m not saying this in a pretentious way, but I’d like to do something a little softer and easier. But it’s kind of like I can’t write science fiction. I don’t have a plan B. I don’t know how to do these other things except this thing I do that’s kind of trolling, investigative or whatever… like SBS doesn’t tell me ‘Hey John soften it up!’ As soon as they saw I was rummaging through things, they were like ‘Yeah! Turn it up!’” she explains.
“I can’t get the green light on a soft thing. I can only talk myself into being the smart troublemaker, which I kind of like.
Who the hell are we? screens 7.30pm Wednesday on SBS.