Of all the recent Australian mini-series, Safe Harbour has one the most interesting concepts we’ve seen on the small screen. The yachting holiday of middle-class, educated Australian friends founders when its meandering itinerary crosses paths with a refugee boat in international waters.
Ryan (Ewen Leslie) captains the boat and evolves into the group’s vague lead in an ensemble cast which includes the excellent Jacqueline McKenzie, Leeanna Walsman, Phoebe Tonkin and Joel Jackson.
That simple beginning of this four-part series (SBS Wednesdays, 8.30pm and SBS On Demand) gives rise to a series which has many directions to travel in, both in story terms and metaphorically. The boat becomes, perhaps, symbolic of privileged Australia which has had to face its own moral responsibility in the wake of calamities such as the SIEV-X.
Like The Slap or Seven Degrees of Ambiguity, Safe Harbour begins with an event and follows the ripples across different families and cultural backgrounds. Unlike Seven Degrees, the middle-class characters are not defined by cliché-driven pencil suits and luxury cars, as if to declare the writers’ critique of that class. Safe Harbour’s characters are comfortable, but not crass or vulgarly aspirational. They are the kinds of left-leaning liberals who believe themselves to be honest and engaged with issues of social justice.
Safe Harbour gives vision to our moral quandaries and sensitively examines our conflicted values – the desire to help others against the desire to insulate ourselves from trouble.
The story alternates between the night at sea and the actions taken or avoided by the Australians on the yacht and some years later when the asylum seekers are now making lives in Brisbane where the story is set. We focus on one family in particular, who reunite with the Australians at a family barbeque at which they reveal the heavy price they paid for the inactions of the Australians. Ismail (Hazem Shammas), his wife Zahra – the compelling Nicole Chamoun, his brother Bilal (Robert Rabiah) and son (Yazeed Daher) propel the story: the suffering that leads to vengeance.
The political minefield of illegal immigration is made for screen storytelling. It is in the building of character and the representation of people who are in many ways “just like us” encountering moral challenges, which allows us to feel empathy and less worthy emotions outside the cool confines of ideology or rationality. Believing, for instance, in the logical deflection of people smugglers because they subject people to horrendous and dangerous sea journeys is a difficult conviction to argue when literally faced with a boatload of desperate humans.
Safe Harbour gives vision to our moral quandaries on this subject and sensitively examines our conflicted values – the desire to help others against the desire to insulate ourselves from trouble; the acknowledgement of our shared responsibility for a world in crisis versus the desire to confine our responsibility to our small domestic worlds.
Director Glendyn Ivin has sublimely and meticulously embraced the visual dimension of a story that ventures across open seas and inner city, leafy suburbs and immigrant apartment blocks. The show’s writers Belinda Chayko, Matt Cameron and Phil Enchelmaier have intelligently interrogated the moral quandaries of the set-up.
Despite the attention to subtleties of characterisation the relentless need for ‘story’ somewhat diminishes the potential of the series as it progresses. Though intelligent and compelling, what begins as a complex story about moral duty is undercut, rather than enhanced by storylines that descend into high stakes action. It feels as the producers could not trust the audience to stay tuned with suspense driven by the character’s own philosophical and emotional struggles. In television, story is obviously necessary – but story in Safe Harbour by episode three and four has become a sledge-hammer that in the end crushes the attraction of the conceptual dilemmas the series begins with.
With such excellent cinematography (Sam Chiplin), direction, acting, unsettlingly moody music score and talented writers at its helm, the simple examination of these human dilemmas might have allowed it to remain central as a genuinely dynamic narrative – and a surprising approach for Australian TV. How we face the humanitarian aspects of contemporary Australia, while still protecting life as we like it, is more interesting and arresting than the tricks of TV melodrama.