Porn or Pedagogy? Parity interviews an advisor for SBS’s ‘Filthy Rich and Homeless’


Porn or Pedagogy? Parity interviews an advisor for SBS's #FilthyRichHomeless Click To Tweet

An Interview with Dr. Catherine Robinson, one of Australia’s leading homelessness researchers. 

This interview first appeared in the July edition of Parity – Poverty and Homelessness: The Elephant in the Room

Catherine was employed to support the development and production of the recent SBS series, “Filthy Rich and Homeless” and is currently employed at Anglicare Tasmania’s Social Action and Research Centre.

Parity: You acted as an advisor to the show’s producers as well as a kind of mentor to its participants. My first question is, do you think the producers took on board your advice in the development and making of the program?

“It was a very strange experience for me to be working on a project that wasn’t my own. And my big fear was that I would end up being associated with something that conflicted with my own core values or ways of thinking and communicating about homelessness. Though I was prepared for an adversarial relationship, I found the editing/directing team genuinely collaborative.  We learned a lot from each other; I learned about communicating with mass audiences and they learned about the lived dynamics of homelessness and about working with people experiencing a range of vulnerabilities”

 

Parity: What in essence were the key elements of your advice in the making of a series about the experience of and response to homelessness?

“The Blackfella Films team had their own excellent researchers, including Jacob Hickey the series editor. The team went to great lengths to engage with the homeless service sector in the first instance – and it was clear to me that the sector itself fundamentally shaped and informed the underpinning ideas for the series that were then discussed with me. My role as Series Consultant was to be an on-hand resource for helping the team understand the context of sites and experiences as they emerged in real time. I also briefed the much larger team responsible for actually shooting and directing the journeys of the five participants. I took on a teaching role – discussing the basics of homelessness as a social and political issue and also reflecting on the ethical and practical issues of engaging with people experiencing homelessness. Finally, I had a role in workshopping and fact-checking some of the series script and I also had an opportunity to provide feedback on early ‘drafts’ of the episodes.”

 

Parity: Do you think the series does justice to the complexities of both the experience of and the response to homelessness? What do you think were some of its strengths and weaknesses?

“A core strength of the series was the effort made to explore how homelessness is lived in different contexts of rough sleeping, drop-in centres, night shelters, crisis accommodation, squatting and boarding houses.  I think it also captured a complex picture of the diverse causes and experiences of homelessness: it illustrated the ways in which different groups of people – women, men, youth, gender-diverse – experience homelessness.  A greater focus on Indigenous homelessness, elder homelessness and an exploration of refugee/migrant homelessness was needed, however, you have to remember that the series wasn’t a documentary aiming to reveal all about homelessness. It was a documentary about the interactions of the five participants with homelessness – and as such was also largely bound by the interactions these participants had and by what could be practically achieved in a ten day timeframe.”

 

Parity: What are your views on using a group of wealthy people who had no experience and little knowledge of homelessness as the vehicle for exploring the experience of homelessness?

“Originally my objection to this approach was that I felt it was very important to use low-middle income participants as a more realistic representation of the Australian community, and of the community members who are more likely to have face to face contact with people experiencing homelessness. As the series unfolded, however, I realised that the key dynamic was actually about the engagement of non-homeless and homeless populations, rather than wealthy/destitute populations. So I ended up feeling that the fact that the participants were wealthy actually became more and more irrelevant as their journeys progressed. It was their non-homelessness that mattered in the way they learned, and as such they ‘worked’ as a vehicle for exploring homelessness. Interestingly, as an aside, I thought the series humanised both the wealthy and the homeless and thus, with perhaps unexpected power, revealed the importance of face to face encounters.”

 

Parity: Do you think this model worked? Do you think there are problems and issues in this approach?

“Yes I think the model worked. The initially highly exaggerated differences between the participants and those experiencing homelessness worked as an audience ‘hook’. As the series progressed, however, it’s my view that the participants’ naivety about homelessness was the same as anyone in the community who hasn’t experienced it and who hasn’t really thought about.”

 

Parity: On many occasions in the series you sought to contextualise what was happening and put the event or the experience into some sort of perspective with the “facts” about homelessness and for example, the various kinds of crisis accommodation that was part of the participants “journey”. Was that mainly for the participants or for the viewing audience?  

“My role was to broaden and deepen the learning of the participants. And their learning was for the viewing audience, it was through their reactions, daily reflections and growth in understanding that the audience too is challenged to widen their sense of what homelessness is and how it is experienced.”

 

Parity: The critical response to the series has been somewhat mixed. What do you make of the criticism that the series was yet another example of SBS “poverty porn” like their previous Struggle Street?

“I have to say that I haven’t actually encountered much criticism of the series – I thought there would be more. In relation to the idea of ‘poverty porn’, I’m never quite sure how to approach this. I’m not sure exactly what this accusation actually entails – it certainly isn’t self-evident. 

 

As a format, porn works because it is predictable and relies on the depiction of relationships of domination. It aims to invoke desire. Reality TV, including the Filthy Rich and Homeless format, aims to produce constructed but ultimately unpredictable and emotionally conflictual moments of encounter – in this case between the homeless and non-homeless.  So I didn’t find the process or the final product pornographic. At the time, it felt like a real, if supported, face to face collaboration between non-homeless and homeless voices to tell a unique story.  And I think this shines through in the actual production. 

 

I would also say the assumption that public representations of vulnerability are necessarily pornographic – if here the word pornographic stands in for ‘exploitative’ – is based on another problematic assumption: that those vulnerable can’t make good decisions about their own involvement in such representations, about how they represent themselves, and about how they themselves represent the key issues at stake. On this basis too, I did not find the process or end product of Filthy Rich and Homeless to be pornographic. Instead I felt Blackfella Films worked to create moments of encounter that were ethical, ethical because how they unfolded and the thoughts and emotions they aimed to generate were not pre-determined or scripted to produce specific (and limited) affect.”

 

Parity: Homelessness is often seen as the result of a mixture of individual circumstance and life problems and structural issues like poverty, lack of affordable housing, race and gender. How successful do you think the series in its representations of both “structure” and “agency”?

“Well my theoretical perspective is that of course there is nothing real about the separation of structure and agency, or about the separation of the individual from society.  In terms of how well the series illustrates the structured nature of individual agency, I think there were limitations that a point in time view always has. We didn’t get to understand the full life contexts of those experiencing homelessness who appeared in the show. To me, understanding this context is central to appreciating the complex interplay of factors which give shape to homelessness, especially long-term homelessness. 

 

What shocked me about the series, however, was just how astonished the general public seemed to be to learn what they did from the series about homelessness in Australia. So while from expert points of view there remain gaps in what the series could cover, disturbingly the key thing I learned was just how little the general public seems to understand. This has forced me to re-think the way I might go about community education myself – a valuable reality-check for all who are current advocates for the end of homelessness.”