The body of 31-year-old John Russell is found at the bottom of a cliff near Bondi. The police report stated that there were no suspicious circumstances surrounding his death. Another gay man had fallen in an area known to be a gay beat – it wasn’t the first time a man had been found in similar circumstances.
22-year-old Dylan Souster woke up on Waterloo Oval after being hit and knocked out. It could have been the kicks to the head he was receiving that brought him back to consciousness. The group assaulting him finally gave up, and as Souster tried to make his way home, he asked a man for help. When they arrived outside Souster’s apartment block and the man learned that Souster had a boyfriend waiting for him, he punched Souster in the face.
Two main things separate Russell from Souster: the relief of a greater tragedy avoided, and about 25 years. Russell died in November 1989, a victim of the epidemic of anti-gay hate crimes that occurred around Bondi and wider Sydney in the 1980s and 1990s. Souster, on the other hand, was assaulted in February 2016, just two weeks before the year’s annual Mardi Gras celebration.
For members of the LGBTQI community, feeling unsafe just comes with the territory. As a concept, safety is aspirational rather than absolute. Truthfully, there are no safe public spaces for anyone, but for LGBTQI people the feeling of being unsafe is amplified by the specificity of the violence that can occur. Whether it’s the word “faggot” shouted out a car window or a man in a bar insisting to a lesbian or a trans woman that sex with him could ‘cure’ them, it’s a violence born not of incidence but of targeted, deep-rooted hatred.
The upcoming SBS miniseries Deep Water is not a direct dramatisation of any specific cases from the wave of crimes, but instead takes cues from suggestions of an inadequate police response - which many believe led to the Bondi hate crimes being ignored or deemed as suicides or accidents - and applies it to a modern political and social context in which Souster found himself victim of a not dissimilar assault.
Producers Miranda Dear and Darren Dale, who both identify as LGBTQI and together produced landmark television such as Redfern Now and Mabo, came to the project after both separately finding themselves in Potts Point on the day Egyptian national Ahmed Ghoniem was found murdered in 2012 and seeing little coverage of it in mainstream media. “We started to do a bit more research and as we did we came across the material about the murders and bashings up and down the Sydney coast in ‘80s and ‘90s and we were really shocked by the scale of the killings and the bashings,” Dear told SBS.
Below: Dear and Dale talk more about how the series came about:
“What we’ve done with the drama is completely fictionalise it,” Dear said. “What we know from recent events is that things have changed, but they’ve not changed that much.” Deep Water is to be accompanied by a documentary film which looks specifically at the murders and assaults which occurred up and down the Sydney coast, while the miniseries itself will frame a new but related story around a police investigation led by two police officers, played by Game of Thrones’ Noah Taylor and Orange is the New Black’s Yael Stone.
“I had no idea [about the history behind the show] and for me that’s the greatest indication that this story needed to be told,” Stone said. It’s another queer-themed project for Stone, whose Deep Water character Detective Tori Lustigman finds herself fixated on the way a new case reflects on the disappearance of her teenage brother in the late 1980s. “Orange has very strong ties to the LGBTQI community,” she said. “Having diversity represented in the way we tell stories is a really, really important thing for me.”
On a narrative level, the series aligns most strongly with the recent second season of American Crime, which similarly looked at the way ignorance can lead to violence. Deep Water, like that show, will also use gay dating and hook-up apps in its story, this time as the tool of the perpetrator of that violence. American Crime is one of the few TV series, alongside shows like Queer as Folk, to put the danger of gay-bashing front-and-centre.
Series like The Closer and Homicide: Life on the Street have both focused episodes on the subject in a more fleeting manner. Other series, like the lurid Nip/Tuck, and more sensitively Orange is the New Black have depicted assaults on trans people. Deep Water’s dramatic focus, combined with the scope of the multi-platform approach to the history behind it, makes it something revolutionary for television. “It’s a really rich feeling to be involved,” said out actor Simon Burke. “Australian television is finally getting diversity up and running, whether it’s Redfern Now or whether it’s Here Come the Habibs,” he said. “Everyone likes to see themselves on screen.”
Many within the LGBTQI community have become tired of watching queer stories which focus on tragedy, but it’s impossible to write off Deep Water just as another deployment of the gay murder trope. “We really didn’t want this to be a story of gay victimhood,” Dear said. One of the main characters, Oscar (Jeremy Lindsay Taylor), “has absolutely agency in the story” according to Dear and helps greatly in the quest for justice.
In that way, Deep Water does not seek to be a salve, or just be a polemic. The series takes sharp focus on a broad, historically ignored subject. But it also looks to evoke a certain sensation. It’s a glance over the shoulder on a darkened street; a quickening of the pulse as a car approaches late at night; a ragged sigh as the feeling that this may be when it’s finally going to happen leaves your body through your fingertips. It’s an attempt to exorcise the demons of the past.
Deep Water airs over two big weeks, premiering Wednesday October 5 at 8.30pm on SBS.