• Alex Dimitriades as The Principal. (SBS)Source: SBS
Television drama is no panacea, but it can go some way towards cultural understanding.
Jim Mitchell

30 Mar 2017 - 11:12 AM  UPDATED 30 Mar 2017 - 11:37 AM

My first admission is that much of my experience of a truly multicultural Australia has come through the prism of television dramas. And many of those have come out of SBS. Shows like East West 101, The Circuit and The Principal.

I wouldn’t blame you at all if you’re sceptical of my claim. In fact, I expect you will be. I hope you will be. It’s only healthy, after all I am writing this op-ed for SBS, a public broadcaster with a charter to depict and cater for a multicultural, diverse Australia.

Still, it’s the God’s honest truth. I swear.

You see, where I live on Sydney’s North Shore, it’s a pretty white-bread society. We don’t see that many Muslims or Sudanese refugees, for example, in these parts. There are people from many different races here, but even in 2017, it still feels very much to me like a big, starchy, almost homogeneous bubble.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics' 2011 census, on average the largest proportion of immigrants in this area were born in England. Strip away England and New Zealand, and the prevailing birthplace of immigrants is South Africa and China. No surprises there, and my uneducated guess based on what I see around me is that not a hell of a lot has changed since then.

So, to my second admission. Wait for it... I am indeed a white middle class male. But I’m not particularly proud of that - not because of my white heritage, but because of my relative ignorance of other cultures in this country.

Of course, the ideal solution to the issue would be to educate myself with what I call “reverse integration”. That is, getting among other cultures rather than demanding, shortsightedly in my view, that they assimilate to the “Australian way” of living.

But if that doesn’t happen, insightful TV drama might just open up a small window to a world barely discovered for the culturally uneducated among us, even if it is from the safe distance of a relatively cloistered, unthreatening place.  

A recent window outwards for me was The Principal, a searing four-part drama starring Alex Dimitriades as the eponymous educator who returns to his alma mater tasked with bringing some order to a school he describes as a “war zone”.

Daily Review critic Luke Buckmaster wasn’t overstating it when he reviewed The Principal on its first airing in October of 2015, describing it as “a school of hard knocks drama that makes Dangerous Minds look like Kindergarten Cop.”

Tension among the students at the fictional Boxdale Boys High in Sydney’s south-west are high before the murder of a classmate on school grounds escalates the discord between different cultural factions. The piece becomes both murder mystery and multicultural commentary, depicting what it’s like to live as a young Muslim today in a hard-bitten environment, and explores hot-button issues like the radicalisation of teenage boys by Islamic State.

If, like me, you’re disconnected from Muslim culture and truly multicultural communities, when it comes to drama on Australian TV, these types of shows may be as close as you get.

You certainly won’t find much diversity among a blinding sea of blondes on our soaps. Not only is there precious little diversity on commercial TV (unless you count Channel Nine’s questionable sitcom effort, the controversial Here Come The Habibs!) but even with the ABC and SBS’s best efforts, we could arguably be seeing more on our TV screens. It’s a work in progress.

Mirrah Foulkes, who plays police liaison officer Kellie Norton in The Principal said in an interview with news.com.au that she ardently believes “the more diversity we see on our screens, the more we can relate to different communities.

“The Muslim community is a great example of that, they’re just not represented on screen. How can people go, ‘Oh I can empathise with this Syrian refugee,’ or ‘I can empathise with this Iraqi man who can’t bring his family over here,’ if they have no experience of that?

“I’m not saying that drama is the key to all of it, or it’s going to change the world, but I really think if done well, it can be a really important part of rearranging people’s perceptions; of giving people a better idea of what it might be like to exist as an Australian Muslim family, and the obstacles and prejudices facing those families.”

Let me be clear, I’m not arguing that television drama is some kind of panacea for cultural ignorance, either. Clearly that would be irresponsible at worst, incredibly naïve at best. But if multicultural programming can bring us a small step closer to understanding, surely that’s no bad thing. With anti-Muslim sentiment permeating national debate, there’s still an undimmed urgency about The Principal. It remains a powerful television experience.


Watch The Principal on Thursday, 30 March at 9:30pm on SBS.

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