The television executives at SBS TV took a novel approach to programming this Summer. Drawing on the general understanding that the usual programming practice at this time of year is to show repeats of the-worst-British and American-sitcoms-ever**, they came up with a promotion that boasted ‘Thankfully, not everyone takes everything off over Summer’. I don’t know about the shot of the aging semi-clad woman—it seemed a bit uncalled for***—but it’s true that SBS has put on some remarkable television over the last couple of months.
I’ve always liked the way SBS creates themed programming over particular weeks or months. They might have a month of programming across various genres and formats that take as their subject AIDS or fatherhood or some other issue. In December, they had a series of programmes on globalisation. I’ve mentioned before a couple of documentary series that ran in this schedule.
Counter Culture was written and presented by Tyler Brûlé, the founder of the design magazine Wallpaper*, and looked at differences in retail culture around the world. Across the weeks the programmed considered retail in emerging capitalist economies, such as Russia. It stopped in Libya and Sweden (I missed that one). Then it moved from Italy, where the Slow movement was encouraging measured buying and personalised service, through to the retail takeovers occurring in the US, where traditional, family established department stores such as Marshall Field in Chicago were being absorbed into larger enterprises such as the Macy’s chain. I suppose the least familiar and, so, surprising retail culture to me was that of the Japanese. I had no idea they were the largest consumers of designer goods in the world and that companies like Versace and Louis Vuitton invested millions to create über-designed stores, all to ‘challenge’ the demanding Japanese consumer.
While I enjoyed Counter Culture for its nuanced exploration of the factors that characterise various retail cultures and consumerism, I was less enamoured of Decadence, which followed the Brûlé programme. Decadence was produced in Australia by Pria Viswalingam, who has previously presented documentary series on SBS, including A Fork In The Road. To my mind, the argument proposed in this series lacked subtlety. Perhaps the overstatement was an attempt to make sure the point was communicated. In my case I was put off by what seemed to be an extreme assertion, that wasn’t true a couple of centimetres below the surface. The suggestion was that the West was uniformly obsessed with material things at the expense of education, family, and spirituality. Of course, I don’t deny that many of our priorities need a good tweak, but the series seemed to be advocating quite conservative values, especially in its imagining of ‘religion’ and ‘family’. I recall walking away from the episode on religion. I did enjoy the discussion on education—even if I could detect a very strong English Men thread. In one of the better moments, Pria Viswalingam interviewed Graeme Turner in his capacity as a Fellow of the Australian Humanities Academy. He observed that we never know what kind of knowledge we will need, so to make decisions about funding education on the basis of what is explicitly utilitarian in the present is fatally short-sighted. Overall, Decadence seemed to idealise Eastern cultures, characterising them as having a somehow more authentic sense of family and spirituality than the West, which just isn’t true. We need only glance at the debates that rage in this country over family, religion and education; they are held as dear here as I’m sure they’re contested in the East. (And you just can’t blame Gretel Kileen and Big Brother for everything that’s wrong with society.)
There were some other one-off documentaries that screened as part of the globalisation focus.
Afghan Ladies’ Driving School told of former Taliban soldiers, who, since the fall of that regime, had become driving instructors. With Taliban law now rescinded, women could drive, so there was a decent business to be made in teaching them how to drive. This apparent volte-face was fascinating, and I suppose this is what piqued the documentary maker’s interest. In the end the film was as much about the film-maker’s presence as the curiosity of a former-Taliban-operated driving school teaching women. His presence, along, no doubt, with that of the camera, had the effect of smoothing the path of women as he and the camera operator followed them around. He noted at one point that, as a man, he was afforded every amenity and welcome, which in turn was extended to the women. It became clear that the women began to relax in his presence; they seemed to forget for a moment that they weren’t entitled to the privileges that men take for granted. In an extraordinary documentary moment, the women were laughing openly with the film-maker in the presence of the driving instructors, when one of them spoke sharply to the women, telling them (we learned in the subtitles) that they were behaving like animals; in a manner unbecoming to women. Here was the ‘enough rope’ moment, when the façade the men had put on for the cameras shattered. It was an appalling and brilliant moment; and to see those women go from carefree laughter to mute seriousness felt like a crack opening up to expose an unfathomable abyss.
Another documentary that began with an ostensibly humorous subject matter was Pickles. It followed a group of Arab Israeli widows who went into business together doing something they’d done all their lives, which is make vegetable pickles. This undertaking might seem ordinary in a Western society, but the documentary revealed that it was a veritable revolution that these widows went into business at all. There was some discussion by the women about the lowly status of widows in their society and the range of limits that were put on their behaviour, if not by physical force then certainly through social disapproval. The management structure of the women’s business was unique as far as I understand business practices. The chief executive position was shared amongst the women, each of them serving for a period of time. There was a major falling out with one of the women, because when she served as ceo she wasn’t terribly forthcoming with information on the finances. She was belligerent in her defence of her management methods, and she openly hoped the business would fail without her. Still, when her son died, the first people on her doorstep were her former business partners.
There were a lot of other wonderful aspects to this documentary, but even though it has already screened, I’m aware that I could be ‘spoiling’ the documentary for those of you who still hope to see it—not that anything will replace seeing it; I’m not talking a Crying Game level of spoiler here.
This post is becoming too long so, I’ll have to continue the SBS discussion in the next line of ‘Summer Lovin’’ tomorrow.
** What excuse can there be for My Family, The Worst Week of My Life, The King of Queens and ‘Til Death?
*** Here I might just mention the number of disrobed men I’ve seen walking the streets of Brisbane lately. It hasn’t been a pretty sight, believe me. It’s not often you find yourself wanting to lean out of a bus window and scream ‘Put your shirt on!’
* Ha! Nothing to explain here. That's how the title is written.