Ez Eldin Deng never had any ambitions to work in TV or film, but storytelling for the screen found him nonetheless. Most recently he worked on the new series Sunshine, offering his sense of perspective to the production where he was one of a number of voices that helped deliver an authenticity to the show.
Born in Sudan – before it split – he came to Australia with his family in 2004 and struggled with this strange land. “I had a culture shock,” he says. “The language was very difficult. I had to learn how to adapt to a new language, how to communicate with others. And [adapt] my whole African ideology and spirit. I still have them – it’s just I juggle and balance the two.”
Years later, Deng was working as a kitchen-hand in an African restaurant in Footscray when a mate convinced him to start actively helping South Sudanese people. His friend, Sudanese musician Augustino Daw, approached him about getting involved in making short films for the drink-management campaign, Be a Brother.
“Of course, I said no," Deng recalls. "And then he’s like, ‘This is straight. We need to write our own story. So we need to create three short series regarding alcohol problems within the African community.’ And so I quit my job, and went and did that in 2015.”
Bigger than Brother
Having established a profile as a creative talent telling stories reflecting local community concerns, Deng was an obvious choice to bring a greater authenticity to the writing on Sunshine. A friend of his told him about Sunshine, and he reached out to producer Sarah Shaw, who set up a meeting.
“They spoke to me about Sunshine – what it’s about and why they’re doing it,” he says. “But, again, I didn't want to get involved."
Deng was nervous about venturing into television, especially on a project as large-scale as Sunshine.
"It was kind of scary to take responsibility of our own stories to be told from a white writer or white director," he adds.
In the end, following continued dialogue with the producers and casting director, he was convinced to come on board as a creative consultant.
"I’m very privileged to be in that position,” he says.
Making it real
Building trust was an important part of Deng’s role, whether that was with the writers, producers and director of Sunshine, or the community putting their story in the production’s hands. That journey began with writers Matt Cameron and Elise McCredie.
“I have to be honest and it has to be truthful,” explains Deng. “I said, ‘I really want this to be authentic,’ and they took that into consideration. Every time, when we write, they’re very open. They send me the script, I read over and I send notes. We meet, talk on the phone. And that is just kind of open trust. To be able to sit down and have a coffee or share a meal built a friendship. That was very beautiful."
Deng had a similar experience in his relationship with Sunshine's producers, with plenty of open dialogue allowing him to "show them the good side of my community. And also the bad side. And also the difficult side.”
That trust-building also extended to the young actors drawn from the local South Sudanese community, who were going to be dealing with some very real issues and emotions while playing their characters.
“Yes, I did sometimes mentor as well,” Deng reveals. “I was just letting them know, ‘This is gonna be hard work. It's a lot of responsibility. You have to stay focused.’ They have to learn their lines. And also talking to them a little bit about the characters and what it all means. So, not necessarily taking it into their hearts so they can trigger some kind of trauma mentally, but to be safe as well.”
That mission was very much supported by director Daina Reid: “[I was] raised by a single mother and my teachers all are females. Some of them are mentors and my bosses. And [Daina] was a mentor that I’ve learned so much from.”
Sunshine will air over two big weeks, premiering Wednesday 18 and Thursday 19 October at 8.30pm on SBS. You can watch an encore screening on SBS VICELAND at 9.30pm or stream it online on SBS On Demand.