The start of the show creates discomfort when the host, David Corlett, demands the participants hand over their passports, mobile phones and wallets. This way, they are just like refugees: without money, an identity or the official protection of their government. But not really. We know who they are and they are perhaps comforted that a camera crew is on hand to document everything. It is with this first emotionally-unsettling incident that we begin to wonder if the six will be put through the same strife and discomfort as refugees, but this unease wanes from this point and we are reminded that to a large degree, the experience is constructed, despite the real danger.
Hair-splitting aside, the series does what a good documentary should. It touches raw nerves of Australianness, otherness and national identity. It raises questions of illegality, morality and guilt, suggesting that we could, and should, do more to address the plight of refugees. It highlights the challenges of policy-making, how we read media reporting on the issue, as well as the sheer indomitability of the human spirit. And while it does all this, it entertains.
A huge part of the documentary’s appeal lies in the choice of the six featured personalities.
Audiences anticipated the heated clashes between the nemesis of former Howard cabinet minister Peter Reith — who was instrumental in initiating offshore processing for refugees and was involved in the both the Tampa and ‘children overboard’ affairs — and the outspoken (at points, ad nauseum) writer, Catherine Deveny.
But there were revelations, too. Fashion model Imogen Bailey surprises when she reveals she embraced elements of Muslim culture for her former partner of eight years, while aspiring politico Angry Anderson and anti-Islamist Michael Smith, after firmly stating their views on how boat people should be turned back, show their softer sides. Reith, however, as politicians do, remains stoic in his views. Former Commonwealth ombudsman Allan Asher is unflappable in his compassion towards refugees.
Plot-wise, the participants are divided and begin their journey in the Melbourne homes of two refugees. Deveny, Reith and Anderson spend time with ethnic Hazaran man, Hamid Sultani, before flying to his war-torn hometown of Kabul in Afghanistan. Asher, Bailey and Smith stay with Somali man, Abdi Aden, and his family en route to Mogadishu. As both Hamid and Abdi share their stories, you see an almost physical weight descend on the participants.
From there, the six make their way to Indonesia where they meet families anticipating the day they make the perilous journey to Australia themselves, before boarding a boat for Christmas Island. There, cameras show viewers what life in a detention centre looks like.
Some viewers may entertain thoughts of, ‘it doesn’t look so bad’ — and it doesn’t — but you also get the sense of the despair brought by living in limbo.
As is often the case, the people who may have benefited most by watching the documentary series were those who did not — people who do not want to be preached to, or who avoid viewing such shows on the grounds that it would upset them. This is a pity.
The best way I have seen the show described was akin to ‘holding a mirror to a country divided’ (ABC’s Jonathan Green). It reflects the myriad imperfections and problems in trying to develop a one-size-fits-all approach (I am Malaysian, and not even I would want to be part of the ‘Malaysian solution’). The reflection in the mirror is the painful truth and people rarely like being told they are flawed, but Go Back to Where You Came From does not promise to provide a solution, only a good, hard look at one’s own views of others.
It is interesting to note in August last year, when the documentary was televised, Australia saw several boats crammed with hopeful refugees arrive, including a record 211 people aboard a vessel stricken near Christmas Island. As a federal election looms and politicians remain divided on what Australia should do, the boats keep coming, and those with strong views on both sides of the issue find these views only growing stronger. Yet, all we can do is wait. But what for? Policy change is almost never brought about by raw emotion and well-told stories alone.
MELODY SONG is a newly-arrived migrant working as a journalist in regional Victoria.