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SBS uncovers the power of the personal

The healthy appetite for non-fiction stories has been one of the notable developments on subscription TV. On the streaming services over the past 18 months, everything from The Last Dance and Tiger King to Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich and The Test have been enthusiastically embraced. This month, Foxtel has been promoting the range of riches on its newly launched Fox Docos channel.

On free TV, it’s a different story, more akin to a desert that has proved particularly hostile for local documentary makers. The commercial channels are almost exclusively interested in true-crime stories. The 2019 screening on Channel Ten of The Final Quarter, a feature-length documentary about AFL champion Adam Goodes, represented a striking exception.

Meanwhile, the ABC has narrowed its available space for documentaries, mostly confining them to hour-long slots. As was the case on Ten, Aunty’s 2020 screening of The Australian Dream, also about Adam Goodes, represented a departure.

Osher Gunsberg explored mental illness in A Matter of Life and Death.

Osher Gunsberg explored mental illness in A Matter of Life and Death.Credit:SBS

Until recently, while also resisting movie-length productions, SBS has been a stalwart in the documentary area, commissioning an array of local productions. Among others, there’s been See What You Made Me Do, a three-part study of domestic abuse, Every Family Has A Secret, about genealogy discoveries, and Untold Australia, which focused on unique communities: Lebanese beauty queens, outback rabbis, undertakers. Presented by “Australia’s third favourite Asian-Australian comic”, Michael Hing, Where Are You Really From? looked at the history and culture of a number of migrant communities.

Local, topical and filling a gap that isn’t being addressed elsewhere, these programs have fallen within the prescribed format of series that confine themselves to half-hour and hour-long episodes. But now there’s a significant shift. Earlier this month, SBS launched Australia Uncovered, an eight-part series of self-contained documentaries, some of them feature-length, which the broadcaster’s director of television and online content, Marshall Heald, described as SBS’s “biggest ever commitment to one-off documentaries”. They premiere on Sunday nights (8.30pm) and are then available on SBS on Demand with sub-titles in five languages.

The series made an impactful opening on September 12 with Strong Female Lead. Directed by Tosca Looby, it drew on archival footage – news stories, Parliamentary proceedings, Q&A episodes, radio interviews, Twitter posts – to assemble a damning chronology of the response to Julia Gillard through her time as the country’s first female Prime Minister. While that history is recent enough to seem familiar, the compilation nevertheless proved shocking as an ugly account of misogyny emerged. Beyond any argument about the rough-and-tumble of politics, what came through with startling clarity was just how much bad behaviour from a range of Gillard’s political opponents and media critics was allowed to pass as acceptable in the battleground of politics.

Then came Osher Gunsberg: A Matter of Life and Death, directed by Jodi Boylan, in which Gunsberg talked to a range of people who suffer from mental illness and a number of doctors, scientists and community workers involved in programs designed to help them. Declaring his own mental-health problems upfront, he explored drug trials and drug-free experiments, while emphasising that acknowledgement and discussion of the problem was a key to helping people who were suffering get the help they needed.

From left, Paula, Muriel and Lucas Craig, the family of murdered Bowraville teen Collen Walker-Craig.

From left, Paula, Muriel and Lucas Craig, the family of murdered Bowraville teen Collen Walker-Craig.Credit:SBS

On September 26, the series continues with The Bowraville Murders, directed by Allan Clarke. Its focus is the 1990 disappearance of three Indigenous children from a NSW town over a six-month period. That you might never have heard of this case, as opposed to, say, the 1966 disappearance of the Beaumont children from an Adelaide beach, is part of the point of this well-considered production. The anger, grief and dismay evident from early in the film is wholly understandable by the time you reach the end of its tale of inattention, inaction and racial prejudice. While The Bowraville Murders begins as a murder mystery, it steadily builds into a searing survey of injustice with deep and wide historical roots.

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