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Struggle Street season two: SBS ‘poverty porn’ is back – and more problematic than ever

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Ethical progress in the documentary medium has always been informed by works that, in one way or another, have failed us. Boundaries are pushed or violated; lessons are learned. So what, if any meaning did we take away from the first season of Struggle Street, the SBS’ three-part series – pitched somewhere between reality TV and observational doco – about impoverished Australians living on the outskirts of Sydney?

I am tempted to say that ‘controversy sells’, given the hullabaloo around its 2015 broadcast (remember when the mayor of Blacktown ordered a fleet of garbage trucks to park outside the national broadcaster?) helped the network score record ratings. That lesson, however, has not been learned in over a hundred years of motion picture history; hot under the collar parties invariably delivering a boon to publicity departments.

The show’s biggest problem was its over-the-top voice-over narration, which sounded patronising despite being intended to come across as true blue and dinky-di. It was simplistic to the point of being vulgar, smothering any notions of nuance the program might have had by deploying hackneyed turns of phrase such as “blood’s thicker than water” and “it’s a tough life when you ain’t got much”. The series had a modicum of merit as a depiction of the lives of people who live on the fringes, but a voice of god narrator without credibility takes a documentary into the danger zone very quickly.

The glaring problem with the second season is again the narration.

The producers of the expanded, six-part second series (David Galloway and Anita Brown) have not just ignored that criticism but doubled down. The voice of Deanna Cooney softens David Field’s rusty, hard yakka inflection, but the words she intones are no less contemptible. The glaring problem with the second season is again the narration, replete with soapbox sludge such as: “Family can cause the deepest of wounds. But it can also bind us and make us stronger. Whatever path we choose in life, it’s never too late to make amends”.

Do the producers really think that anybody, from any walk of life, will tune into Struggle Street for insight about how to become a better person? The first season was widely dubbed ‘poverty porn’. This accusation no doubt impacted the structure of the second, which is determined to show that its moral allegiances are with its subjects. Lumpish introductory narration tells us the program is about people “stuck on the bottom rung…the forgotten battlers struggling to make ends meet”.

The efforts of the directors (Tim Green, Stuart O’Rourke, Madeleine Parry, Daniel Schist and Pete Matthews, all credited as co-directors and camera operators for every episode) to prove they are supporting – rather than exploiting – their subjects pervades the integrity of the project. Exacerbating an already uncritical approach, it allows the participants to write the narrative themselves, effectively delivering a deathblow to Struggle Street’s integrity.

Take, for example, the subject Michael, a key focus throughout the series. This plain-spoken bloke is, to borrow documentary vernacular, ‘good talent’, with a terrible hard-luck story to tell. Michael – who has mental health and drug addiction issues – lives in a disgusting hovel: a trash-strewn apartment that wouldn’t look out of place in a Mad Max movie. His mother has just died and he doesn’t have shoes to wear to the funeral. He is bitter about his family, describing them as assholes, and his old friends, who are “shit bags who shoot up”.

By distilling the complexity of its subjects’ lives into black and white messages….the filmmakers do a disservice to everybody.

Michael was raised in a middle-class family and attributes his life’s decline to being bullied at school. His view of things presents a simple, causal trajectory: the bullying led to drug addiction, and the drug addiction led to everything else. Instead of taking into account the fact that none of us can give wholly reliable, unprejudiced accounts of our lives and personal journeys, the filmmakers not only uncritically accept his version of events, but shape the very structure of the show accordingly, spurting numerous reductive messages (again, through that voice-over) like “the cruelty of others shapes lives”.

Going by the footage at hand, we have no way of knowing to what extent the filmmakers put words into their subjects mouths, though we get a sense of how much were taken out. The very idea that you can be critical and compassionate seems to have eluded them. Where was the search for meaningful connections? As in: what creates bullying, and how can we counter it? What is the relationship between bullying and drug use? What measures are the government putting in place, and what are the key challenges?

In lieu of all of this, we are simply told that “the system turns against you,” as if the system were some kind of monster that can rise from the sea and swallow us whole. No doubt the poor, pinched people of Struggle Street have every reason to believe society turned against them – and perhaps it has. But by distilling the complexity of their lives into black and white messages, then having the gall to lecture viewers about moral rectitude, the filmmakers do a disservice to everybody.

Struggle Street will screen across two weeks on SBS. Episodes will premiere at 8.30pm on consecutive Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 28 November.

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5 responses to “Struggle Street season two: SBS ‘poverty porn’ is back – and more problematic than ever

  1. “Reality” tv generally is low brow porn for the bogans and general unwashed underclasses. Hard to see why any but the most hard core PC correct public service social engineer would even glance at this rubbish.

  2. OK, you don’t like the way the program is produced and presented – fair enough. However, much of the criticism leveled at the program as being ‘povo porn’, as I see it, is less interested in production values than it is offended by personal accounts of poverty being shown on television. Perhaps we just would prefer not to think about the fact that real poverty exists in Australia.

  3. another completely stupid and contradictory review from Mr Buckmaster, who clearly had made up his mind about the program before he’d even seen it. first of all he says “Do the producers really think that anybody, from any walk of life, will tune into Struggle Street for insight about how to become a better person?” , and then he berates the filmmakers for not exploring “what creates bullying, and how can we counter it?” damned for what they do, damned for what they don’t do. on the one hand it’s “uncritical”, but on the other hand it offers “black and white messages” and lectures people. sheer hypocrisy, so thank god Luke isn’t producing any television, if he has so little understanding of it.

  4. I think this review was very well stated and clearly defined. I thought this was an excellent explanation of the show and helped explain my apprehension when watching the first episode. Well written Luke!

  5. This review is written so overwhelmingly from a prejudiced perspective. The writer had already made his mind up and is fitting his narrative to justify his own thoughts.

    True, some of the show’s narration is simplistic and cheesy. But quite untrue I feel that nobody is watching to perhaps take something from it and learn something. How could they not?

    In a documentary there’s no necessarily a need to deduce answers to the questions raised – and perhaps this is best left to experts and not a TV film crew?

    No doubt there is a lot of editing, and sometimes that frustrated even myself, particularly with the NZ family at Koha House. There quite obviously seems to be some domestic violence issues there, but maybe that was edited for the mother’s safety and the young children’s identification/benefit.

    I think these types of shows are necessary; but with a longer running time to be able to properly look at ALL the aspects of poverty in Australia.

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