Back in 2008, the observational documentary The Oasis ripped the lid off the issue of youth homelessness in Australia. Directors Ian Darling And Sascha Ettinger Epstein spent two years documenting the lives of the troubled kids who gravitated to the titular Salvation Army outreach centre, and their work sent shock waves throughout Australia, generating much heated debate and promises of reform. Now, a decade on, Epstein had returned to this milieu with the new documentary Life After the Oasis to see what, if anything, had changed.
Going right back to the beginning, how did the original film come about?
[Co-director] Ian Darling, who is a social impact filmmaker and philanthropist, was determined to do something about the state of youth homelessness in Australia. He had discovered the tireless work of Captain Paul Moulds (and Captain Robbin Moulds) who was running Oasis Youth Support Network in Sydney's Surry Hills and was basically a surrogate father to a generation of kids living it rough.
Ian negotiated with The Salvation Army and Paul for carte blanche access to make a documentary, with the bigger vision that if people got to know the stories of the young people, they would no longer see them as ‘street thugs' and ‘ratbags’.
I had made a film about a street photographer in the badlands of the Cross so I knew the terrain a bit, so I came on board to start hanging around and documenting the lives of these youth. Ian and I both love the observational style of filmmaking and we knew the best film with real depth could only be made with longitudinal access, so we effectively invested two years really getting to know people and understanding where they had come from, their struggles and aspirations. It was unbelievably eye-opening to hear and witness the disadvantage these young people experience in a wealthy country like Australia in the 21st Century. That portrait of Oasis Youth Network really became a microcosm of the issues face by young people experiencing homelessness all around Australia.
When did you first float the idea of revisiting some of the subjects of the first film? Was this something you always had in mind?
When the documentary The Oasis was released there was a real groundswell of support for the issue of youth homelessness. Volunteers came forward in droves, people gave money, the Rudd government released the green and white papers which were roadmaps to improve the situation and Rudd himself pledged to halve homelessness by 2020. It really felt like society was genuinely going to change for the better.
Approaching a decade later, with resources stripped from the welfare sector and homelessness increasing to record numbers, Ian and I met and discussed our dissatisfaction over the failed promises and inaction. We wanted to get the issue back into public consciousness and thought that the original ‘stars’ of the documentary were a good starting point for research. The stories we found warranted their own film.
Looking back at the original film, were you surprised at the massive impact it had?
Having been embedded in the world of the Oasis refuge for so long, I was very caught up in the individual lives of the young people. I knew their stories, captured in such a raw way, were very moving. So I was hoping when people watched the film they would genuinely care. But ultimately Ian had masterminded an education and outreach strategy that included commissioning an official Independent National Report with comprehensive recommendations; launching the film as event television on the ABC with a prototype of Q&A panel of experts to discuss the issue; donating the film into every secondary school with accompanying lessons; taking the film and its cast to Parliament House - the list went on.
Even with that push behind it, it still surprised me that the film touched so many people because it was not easy viewing. I love the fact it is still taught in schools today because the fresh generation coming through is where there is hope for long lasting change.
I have had so many anecdotal conversations with people who signed up to do social work after seeing the film. The experience of The Oasis really affirmed in my mind that film has incredible power to influence change and change people’s perspectives on the world.
Although The Oasis is a landmark film, now a decade later the stats on homelessness are even worse. What are your theories regarding the continued issue of homelessness – why do we seem to be running just to stay in place on this issue?
Yes it is incredibly frustrating, especially since Australia’s economy has been so strong for so long. Despite this, millions have been stripped from the welfare sector, the recommendations we know will ameliorate homelessness aren’t being implemented. There is also a really mean attitude in the current zeitgeist around ‘lifters and leaners’ and punitive measures for dealing with people who are trapped in disadvantage - this is evidenced by the failure to raise Newstart.
It’s depressing to think that government’s didn’t heed the recommendations of the Burdekin Report and ‘Nobody’s Children’ released 20 years before The Oasis - and that the decades of inaction seem destined to continue. It seems there’s only the willingness to apply resources for a crisis response rather than committing funding which has the potential of dealing with the root causes of the issue. With social inequality intensifying, I dread to think where we will be in another ten years time. The idea of the Aussie ‘fair go’ certainly seems to be fading into oblivion.
Emotionally, how did you find reconnecting with some of the film’s subjects?
I really enjoyed getting back together with the young’uns from the old Oasis days. I really lived that time with them so it was almost like a ‘class of 2008 reunion’. To see how many have risen above their circumstances is inspiring. To be honest I was a little fearful about where I might find some people given the carnage of their earlier lives. I didn’t really believe people could emerge from such deep addictions and other traumas but most of these guys have really matured and mellowed, and that level of volatility has receded. They’re still kicking and making a life for themselves despite the struggles and it’s truly admirable.
Was there anyone you wanted to re-interview or get to participate that you were unable to?
There were a few people I couldn’t track down. The word is out on the street though, so I would still love to catch up with them if the feeling is good.
When dealing with a subject as emotive as this, do you find maintaining a degree of objectivity challenging?
I don’t think there is much objectivity - that’s supposedly reserved for journalism! You have to connect with people in a very personal way to represent them with any depth, so it’s extremely subjective. Sometimes I have worried about re-traumatising people when they relive their stories through retelling, but most of them really want to get a message across so they can help other kids who may find themselves in their situation. They’re really altruistic. It sounds cheesy but I feel like it’s a privilege to curate their stories and bring them to a wider audience.
Do you see yourself returning to the Oasis kids as a subject further down the track – a kind of street-level 7UP?
As above I love the 7UP series, so I would be open to it - if I haven’t retired to the bush ten years from now! Many of the ex-Oasis people have children so it would be great to make a documentary on where the next generation are at to illustrate the intergenerational aspects of disadvantage and what it takes to break the cycle.
Life after Oasis airs on SBS at 10.30pm on Sunday, 10 November and will be available at SBS On Demand.