Expanding empathy: Go Back to Where You Came From

24 June 2011

Written by: Suzannah Macbeth

Go Back to Where You Came From is the story of a ‘social experiment’, and in it, SBS has produced a work that is bold in its aim and challenging for its viewers.

It is risky, but it has succeeded in exploring the complexities of the refugee issue and in bringing empathy to a debate that has been largely dominated by slogans and prejudice.

‘If you want to make television that really cuts through and that does something exceptional then sometimes you have to take these risks,’ said director Ivan O’Mahoney in an SBS interview yesterday.

Go Back to Where You Came From has certainly ‘cut through’. Since the early 2000s, debate over refugees and asylum seekers has been heavily politicised. It has been dominated by a ‘them-and-us’ approach; by narratives of fear and the use of misnomers like ‘illegals’ and ‘queue jumpers’. There has been discussion about the complexities of the issue in select areas of the media, but in many areas, including in the opinion pages of major broadsheets, the complexities have often been ironed out in favor of easy, blanket statements and catch phrases that people recognise but do not deconstruct.

Go Back to Where You Came From, which screened in three episodes beginning on Tuesday night on SBS, offers something else. Both the participants and the audience are exposed to people, situations and issues that they may previously have held strong views on, yet which they do not necessarily understand. In doing so, Go Back to Where You Came From is not only entertaining television, but has also become a player in, and a driver of, debate.

More than half a million people watched the first episode on Tuesday night, a very strong audience for SBS. The Twittersphere went wild, with #gobackSBS trending worldwide. It was clear through the Twitter conversation that viewers were being challenged in a variety of ways — not just in terms of the emotion they felt in being confronted by the experience of refugees, but also in terms of the range of views within the participant group.

On ABC’s Q&A program on Monday, comedian Josh Thomas spoke about how reality TV can expose audiences to people that they’ve had no engagement with previously; that it is possible to ‘get to know’ people that you wouldn’t otherwise meet.

In most reality TV programs, ‘reality’ is an oxymoron given the highly contrived situations. Audiences engage with participants at an extremely superficial level, with programs tending to focus on competition between the participants, petty disagreements and trivial difficulties. There is rarely any engagement with weighty issues.

In Go Back to Where You Came From, audiences are exposed to six ‘ordinary’ Australians in a format that borrows conventions of the reality genre. Their presence is artificial and constructed in that they are taken out of their own lives, yet the situations themselves and the people they encounter are real.

Occasionally, the participants clash with each other and they have certainly clashed with audiences, who have been challenged by the participants’ views on the incredibly divisive issue of asylum seekers and refugees. Audiences have also been confronted by the experience of refugees and asylum seekers — for most people, this is the closest they will ever come to these experiences.

In this sense, I occasionally felt like a voyeur, as the camera made its way into the lives of Chin refugees from Myanmar living in Malaysia, Iraqi refugees in Jordan and refugees from all over Africa in Kenya. It felt like an intrusion, but I cannot regret the boldness of SBS in making this intrusion. The experiences that Go Back to Where You Came From reveals, and the stories and lives of the refugees, resonate deeply.

One of the participants, Adam Hartup, has an open, honest face, and at several times during the series his eyes were wide in shock, his emotion clear for audiences to see. When he emerged from visiting Iraqi asylum seekers in Villawood Detention Centre, just across town from where he grew up in Cronulla, he was obviously troubled. By the closing scene, there was little doubt that the experience had completely realigned the way he thought about the issue.

The concept of empathy has recurred both in the series and in the Twitter conversation about it. Raye Colbey, one of the South Australian participants, spoke about the importance of getting to know people and about understanding their situation. It is as though the participants’ circles of empathy have been expanded through their exposure to refugees.

For Raquel Moore, who had previously admitted to being racist and said, ‘the colour of their skin — I just don’t like Africans’, that circle had expanded dramatically.

My hope is that the circle of empathy can continue to grow for participants and audiences, and that it can reach beyond the boundaries of our own lives and beyond the groups of people that we are exposed to. To sympathise only with the suffering of those we know is limiting and cruel.

Deo Masudi, who Raye, Raquel and Rod visit in Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, said something that resonated throughout Go Back to Where You Came From.

‘The big problem for this world is to educate the system to touch the heart,’ he says. ‘If I touch your heart, then you are able to understand me.’

I feel that this is the guiding maxim for Go Back to Where You Came From, and in this, it has succeeded in full.

Suzannah Marshall Macbeth is a Master of Global Communications student at La Trobe University and a member of the upstart editorial team. She blogs at equineocean and you can follow her on Twitter.