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Go Back To Where You Came From Series 1 Analysis Essay

There are many different views about refugees in Australian society, where illegal boat people and over flowing detention centres are a controversial problem today. Go Back To Where You Came From is a documentary directed by Ivan O’Mahoney about a social experiment that challenges the dominant views of six Australians about refugees and asylum seekers. These six Australians are taken on a 25 day journey where they are placed into the troubled “worlds” of refugees. For a few of the Australians it is their first time overseas but, for all of them it is the most challenging and confronting experience of their lives.

This essay will discuss the codes and conventions used in this documentary to position and challenge the cultural assumptions and beliefs of the viewer. One of the main techniques used in the documentary was to present the stories of the six Australians using a “reality TV” format. The camera was an observer of the reactions and raw emotions showed from the Australians as they experienced first-hand the troubles of many refugees. We see this clearly this when they are on the asylum seeker boat.

A heated argument broke out between Raye and Raquel, stress levels were high and panic rose when the boat started to sink. Through this technique characterisation is developed and we follow the changes in the six Australians’ views and attitudes as they live with and get to know refugees in Australia, Malaysia, Africa, Jordan and Iraq. For example, in the beginning of the documentary Raquel states, “I guess I am a bit racist, I just don’t like black people. ” However, by the end of the first episode Raquel reaches out and comforts Maisara, from the Congo, “You’re a lovely lady.

You don’t deserve this. ” During her time in the refugee camp in Kenya we see further changes in Raquel. She states that she will no longer use the term “black people” instead she will say Africans. We see this characterisation develop in all of the characters with the exception of Darren who remains fixed that asylum seekers decision to come by boat is wrong. Another technique used in the documentary to challenge the viewers’ assumptions was the use of narration to present facts about the refugee situation. These facts and figures give the viewers a truthful and realistic picture of the situation.

Some beliefs that exist in Australian society are that we are taking in too many refugees; they are criminals, they are taking over Australia, using Australian tax payers’ money and changing our culture. However, we are presented with facts and figures that change our assumptions. For example, more than 30 million people have fled their homes with nothing but the clothes they wear, boat smugglers charge up to and over $10, 000 US dollars, 13, 000 refugees are accepted annually only 2,000 of those refugees arrive by boat.

Despite what many people think, like Raye who believed refugees in Australia are “handed everything on a gold platter,” life in detention centres is hard. In Villawood Detention Centre, over 9 months, three detainees committed suicide and 18 caused self-harm. Finally, camera angles and shots were used cleverly to draw the viewer into the journey of the six Australians and the lives of the refugees. Close-ups were used to capture emotions and feelings of the characters. For example, during the immigration raid in Malaysia, close-up camera shots showed the fear, confusion and also shock on the six Australians.

Close-ups were also effective during the interview sequences where the camera zoomed in on the faces to capture the emotions of what was being said. In addition wide-angle and landscape shots captured setting such as the barren and dry terrain of Kenya and the desolate and dusty landscape of Iraq. While flying over Malaysia and Kenya, the camera panned across large areas showing makeshift huts and buildings indicating how immense the refugee problem is. So, in the end was the social experiment a success in challenging dominant beliefs and attitudes towards refugees?

From the characters final comments, we realise that their original attitudes, beliefs and assumptions had been changed even if was just a little for some. As a viewer, my own beliefs and assumptions were also challenged to be more empathetic and also to be more critical of what I see and hear on the media. In Dr David Corlett’s final words in the documentary, we are challenged to remember that the refugee issue is very complex and we should never forget, “the humanity of people concerned and their right to live free from fear of persecution. ”

In the first part, on Tuesday night, the unseen narrator said the participants had just ''survived a sinking, burning boat''. In fact it was an obvious charade.

We were told that ''at the last minute, the stricken boat is spotted''. Again, only for the gullible. The rescue was as false as the emergency.

The narrator told us that only ''1 per cent of the world's refugees are resettled by the UN''. Again, a highly misleading statistic.

The empathy argument is easily turned on its head, something the producers carefully avoid doing. Far from lacking empathy, the decision to send a punitive signal to the people smugglers and their clients has been proven to stop the people-smuggling trade. Detention centres, instead of being opened all over the country, would empty out. Lives would not be lost at sea. Hundreds of millions of dollars would be spent on people instead of policing. More refugees could come to Australia under less stress and for less cost.

Because this debate is not about empathy. It is not about numbers. It is not about race. It is about principle: control the borders. The biggest beneficiaries of strict border control would be legitimate asylum seekers.

Much to the chagrin of the progressive side of politics, this argument is the one that has carried the day in Australia. After 15 years of being bashed over the head, especially by the ABC and SBS, the public has not budged. The Gillard Labor government could fall on this issue alone, given how badly it has been handled for almost four years. This year it will spend more than $750 million on illegal entries, an increase of 700 per cent over the final year of the Howard government.

The bedrock opposition of Australians to the empathy argument is quickly evident from the questions asked by some of the participants in Go Back to where You Came from.

Adam Hartup: Why didn't the boat people stay in Malaysia or Indonesia where they were in no danger?

Why do 99 per cent of them arrive with no papers?

Darren Hassan: Once they leave Malaysia, and then Indonesia, they become economic migrants. We need to send a tougher signal. People who are destroying documents, what are they trying to hide?

Raye Colbey (after visiting settled refugees from Africa who had come via the UN process): These are real refugees. They came the right way.

None of these basic questions were seriously addressed by the producers in their opening salvo. They had carefully sifted through 500 people before selecting the six for the program, and carefully chosen the refugees the participants would visit in Australia. But it would have been possible to randomly select six Australians, take them to a refugee camp, or to a newly arrived refugee's home, and see a ramp-up in empathy in most cases. This series is about something else.

While the quality of the filmmaking is good, the laudatory descriptions of the program as being even-handed are overstated. It is stacked with commentary, from the narration, to the structure, to the guide, Dr David Corlett, who is immersed in the refugee industry, is highly political, and in 2003 wrote a Quarterly Essay, ''Sending Them Home'', with Robert Manne. This is the producers' idea of dispassionate objectivity.


Last August, the ABC's Four Corners presented a searing program, ''Smugglers' Paradise'', which presented a far more accurate and confronting picture of the people smuggling trade to Australia. It was reality TV that was real. This new series has real people in real places, but it remains an exercise in manipulation for everyone involved.

Follow the National Times on Twitter: @NationalTimesAU

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