If there was an award for casting it should go to upcoming SBS series Look Me in the Eye for finding 38 year old Ayik and 43 year old Anyang.
Both grew up as boy soldiers in South Sudan but Anyang became a prison guard who tortured the younger Ayik under orders from rebel warlords. While all of that ended decades ago in Africa -the torment came flooding back for Ayik when he spotted the same man in his local church, in Brisbane.
It’s a premise that reads like an episode of Australian Story, except it now sees both men about to face one another in the raw, television experience of Look Me in the Eye.
On paper this show sounds like a simplistic, perhaps even exploitative idea: sitting two estranged people face to face in silence for 5 minutes, to see if they can find resolution “without words getting in the way.”
In practice it makes for riveting television -at least for the scenes depicting face to face conflict.
Much of the hour is devoted to profiling two duos who will undergo this experiment, with evergreen host Ray Martin on hand as storyteller and interviewer.
There are ample scenes of Ayik in Brisbane, including with his 10 year old son, recalling his life in South Sudan, running away from rebels, and a complete loss of childhood. In Australia this former refugee has built a new life, yet having spotted the man in his church he is seeking closure.
“Does he have remorse for what he’s done?” he asks.
“I wanted to know why he did it so I will be able to move on with the rest of my life.”
The weight of the story is given sympathetically to Ayik, although Anyang is later interviewed by Martin as to his motives for agreeing to meet. He is seeking forgiveness. I’m hoping we don’t discover later it was because of any TV appearance fee.
The second pair are a separated couple Sue, 57, and Garry, 58, also from Queensland. They were married for some 33 years but drifted apart 3 years ago.
“When you don’t look after something you lose it. And that’s what happened,” Sue explains.
“I want Garry back but he has to want that too.”
Both will be the first to sit in the industrial confines of Carriageworks with two chairs facing one another, but forbidden from speaking for 5 minutes. There are tears, smiles, hesitations, nerves and everything in between. Underscored by music and lighting, this is confronting for participants and viewers alike and that is it’s very strength.
After 5 minutes couples separate to decide if they want to return and talk.
Without giving too much away, you will need the tissues for what is to come. If the eyes are the window to our souls then Look Me in the Eye puts the vision back into Television. It’s remarkable what can be related devoid of dialogue and where the camera is unflinching in its perspective.
My only beef is that having introduced the first couple and teased us for the face to face meeting editors have chosen to then drag us away to meet the second pair. I call this Meanwhile Television and it usually implies that viewers will get bored if not given new playthings quickly. I suspect it occurs here because the meetings are the shortest component of the overall programme. And did I mention too many recaps along the way?
Nevertheless, this is compelling television when Ayik and Anyang, in particular, meet. You can’t help but be engrossed in his story and the raw, beating emotion of the circumstance he now finds himself.
There won’t be a dry eye in the house.
Look Me in the Eye premieres 8:30pm Wednesday on SBS.