If you’d asked venerable journalist and psychology sceptic Ray Martin prior to hosting social experiment Look Me in the Eye, he’d likely have told you the concept was complete rubbish.
Based on the studies of neuroscientists, the six-part documentary series has pairs of estranged people meet again, without speaking, to look each other in the eye to see if the encounter can lead to a rapprochement.
Having witnessed the power of non-verbal communication on the show, Martin now freely admits he was wrong.
Why did you want to be involved with the project?
I like SBS’s standards for programs like this that are old-fashioned reality but tend to be real, as opposed to "reality" [shows] which commercial [TV] does. When we did First Contact, the two series, also Is Australia Racist?, I liked their parameters; I liked their rules and regulations. So I was sceptical about this sort of social experiment, to be honest. I don't have a hundred percent faith in psychologists. I was wrong. It was very effective.
Were you sceptical about the science behind it or about the concept, that it could really work?
I’ve done a lot of stories on psychiatrists and psychologists. I’ve got three years of psych at uni myself [which] virtually qualifies me to be a psychologist and yet I know nothing.
So often social science – I’m generalising because there are always exceptions – but social science is a fairly vague, inaccurate science. Even to call it a science is questionable. So I’m not a huge fan of psychologists and I had my doubts about this, but was anxious to give it a go. I was wrong. It worked in every case.
What’s the science behind the concept? Why do psychologists think that this will work, having eye-to-eye contact?
If you think of what we do in normal human life, we always chastise or educate our children by saying, "Come on, look me in the eye. Look while I’m talking to you," and we emphasise that.
I walk my daughter’s dog; it’s a border collie, obviously a very intelligent dog. I’ve just noticed having done this series, that probably 80 percent of what he gets from me is eye-to-eye contact. All the time he’s looking at me to see what my eye reaction is and it’s interesting with non-verbal communication how important the eyes are.
That’s the basis of the social science. Everybody who appeared in the program as we were recording over two-and-a-half weeks said to me afterward that they had seen something when they said nothing and just looked each other in the eye. They’d seen love or anger or hate in a couple of occasions, but also sorrow, and they saw memories of what they had done together.
It’s a very powerful experience for the audience. It’s hard to watch but also quite compelling.
I’m glad you thought that. It’s one of the most emotional things I’ve ever done and one of the best things I’ve ever done.
People were clearly not out there to go on television; they were out there because this was almost the last desperate act. They had tried other things that hadn’t worked, so to go on television and voice really raw emotions was brave. It’s a box of Kleenex sort of series.
Why it works and why it worked for me is that everybody’s got a story of estrangement. If you’re not yourself estranged from somebody, you know somebody who is – in the case of one of the producers, she hadn’t spoken to her mother for 15 years. That’s the power of really good television.
The confrontation between former child soldier Ayik and his torturer/prison guard, Anyang, in episode one is so powerful.
The two Sudanese boys were just amazing. What you saw was immensely powerful. What you didn't see was even more powerful because we had to cut wonderful stuff out because of time reasons, and that's television.
To sit there and listen to these two uneducated men who'd been to hell and back as children, as boys... Even the guy [Anyang] who had been the interrogator and the torturer, even he, as he revealed to us, had been in his village when he was 14, and the rebels came in and shot his father, who was a doctor, and took his mother and sisters away never to be seen again.
So he had terrible trauma before he'd joined the soldiers and became the torturer, and yet he never used that as an excuse. He just kept saying, "Will you please forgive me? Will you please forgive me?" And he didn't say, "Look, I've been there as well. I've actually had terrible times and the reason I reacted so inhumanely is that I was also traumatised." He didn't say that, he just said, "Please forgive me."
When you see the victim [Ayik], when he started to cry and then seek some sort of explanation for the behaviour, he was like [President Barack] Obama. He was just this incredibly compelling, articulate person, and not generalising too much here, but this ability to talk and storytell that he had, and the black Africans have, was just on display.
The Sudanese boy soldiers were one of the most compelling pieces of television I've ever seen. If a dramatist set out to write it, you couldn't write it any more powerfully.
When you were looking back at the footage, was that really affecting for you, just looking back at how emotional and intense these situations were?
Yes, absolutely. We shot it over two-and-a-half weeks. We would start at seven in the morning and finish sometimes at 9:30pm. Honestly, I'm fairly tough in these things – I'd done lots of emotional stories over the years – and I'd get home and basically just want to fall into bed. It was really emotionally draining for me, let alone for the people involved, and of course for our team.
Over your career, have you become a good study of people just by looking into their eyes?
Absolutely. They [the participants] needed to trust me and trust the program to believe they weren’t going to be dudded, and they weren’t dudded. But they didn't know that when they went in there and so therefore we had to give them, fairly quickly, a sense of encouragement and the belief that they were going to be looked after and that’s all about looking them in the eyes. When I talked to people, I was especially conscious in advance of settling them down and getting them ready for this encounter and this experiment. I was anxious that they believed me and also believed we would look after them.
What about the process of the applications, were there many people wanting to take part in the experiment?
Unbelievable. It was like an avalanche. We had something like 1,300 applications, about 1,200 of which were fairly quickly dismissed because they were either too emotionally dangerous or there was too much prospect of not knowing who you should believe and legal action, or maybe people are a bit unstable.
There's a real, heavy amount of duty of care in this program. There was a psychologist, and a very good one, on the set every day talking to people before and after. In probably half the cases, the people who were seeking to reconcile would say, "I honestly don’t know whether they’ll show after all these years we haven’t spoken," and so they were pleased or even surprised when that person walked down the stairs, and was prepared to sit and look them in the eye.
What's remarkable is that two people who loved each other and had been estranged could sit in an empty, large room and just look in each other's eyes without talking apart from maybe mouthing the words "I love you" or "I'm sorry", which a couple of people did. It was important as a program that they played the game. I'm not sure I would have played the game because, like a lot of people, I would have felt I needed to get up and give my daughter a hug or give my wife a kiss. I was pleased people took the social experiment in all its seriousness. Not only did they play the game, but also the experiment worked in terms of people coming back and openly explaining to each other or challenging each other as to why they’d split.
A lot of the time with these reality shows, people have such an awareness that the cameras are on them. But what struck me about this was that the process was so intense, it was almost like the cameras weren’t there, they didn’t really notice them.
You get the sense people aren't playing to the camera. You get the sense people are really desperate to reconnect or get some explanation, some resolution of the problem, and they're so determined to do it that they, for the moment, ignore the camera. In the whole series, very few people said, "Let's talk about that later when the cameras aren't here."
Part of the skill of the executive producer was to hide the cameras – they weren't obvious to the person coming down [to confront the other]. This is such an emotional moment for them, and particularly traumatic, that they forgot the cameras were there. For the moment, they just seemed to really look each other in the eye. [They] blocked out the reality of, "Gee, I'm on national television," and, "Gee, lots of people are going to hear my sorry tales." They just opened up and met again.
Would you ever want to take part in an experiment like this?
No. I don't know why, but I've spent my life on television, yet I don't think I'd go on television and talk of my most intimate secrets or those sorts of raw emotions. I've always wondered having interviewed people on live television on something like Midday, where you've got a hundred people in the audience and a million or so at home, "Why are you telling me all this intimate information?" Yet people do reach that point if there's enough trust and also enough desire.
I can't imagine going on [a show like this] and yet I certainly can imagine using eye contact far more strongly now than I did before I did this series, and I tend to look in people's eyes when I talk to them anyway. I find part of interviewing over the years has been that you get people's attention fairly quickly if you keep looking them in the eye. What I learned was just this power of eye contact.
Look Me In The Eye airs Wednesdays at 8:30pm on SBS. Watch the first episode at SBS On Demand: