It’s been more than 2 years since SBS has given us a local drama production. Better Man was a moving work, albeit attracting a modest audience due to its heavy subject nature.
Now SBS gives us The Principal, a 4 part miniseries which tackles equally-challenging themes, but with a whodunnit angle and one in which the ending isn’t as obvious or -hopefully- as bleak.
Alex Dimitriades stars as Matt Bashir, an optimistic school principal not afraid to take on the troubled South-West Sydney boys school of Boxdale High. He is a product of the community and a former student himself. But since those days Boxdale is at the centre of multicultural tensions. Its students are drawn from Middle Eastern, African and Islander heritage. Its barbed-wire perimeter and CCTV grounds encircle dishevelled, graffiti-laden buildings.
Education takes a back sat as testosterone-driven boys are distracted by hotted-up cars, rap music, knives, gangs and the occasional bomb threat. Even the teachers are doing it tough, unsupported by the Education Department, and struggling just to keep a lid on disruptive classes. When the newly-arrived Bashir vows to turn things around, few believe him.
“This place is a war zone. This is our last chance to turn this place around,” he tells his staff.
“We have to build relationships with their families and the community.
“Give me 2 weeks to make a difference.”
But as the opening scenes indicate, within two weeks one of Bashir’s students will be dead.
At the forefront of the student community is Tarek Ahmed (Rahel Romahn) a Syrian-Australian being raised by a single father. When he causes trouble in one class we see Bashir reach out to him, putting into practice his benevolent methods.
“Who cares about Tarek? Who’s got your back?” he asks.
Some, including Deputy Principal Ursula Bright (Di Adams) fail to embrace his touchy-feely style, but others such as Police Liaison Officer Kellie Norton (Mirrah Foulkes) may yet be won over. If this is an urban ‘To Sir With Love’ at least it is a recognisable genre, cleverly pitched at a contemporary audience.
But Bashir is not without his own demons, distant from his parents, harbouring a fractured romantic past and suppressing dark experiences from his own days as a Boxdale student. This adds flaws to his character that avoids him simply being a bearded Sidney Poitier.
When gang violence erupts into the murder of a student on school grounds, Detective Bilic (Aden Young) leads an investigation, whilst media turn up the heat on Bashir.
The Principal is brimming in themes of cultural conflict, fractured communities and a crumbling education system. Rather than anchoring around the path of the victim, it follows one of hope and strategically puts hurdles in its way.
Dimitriades brings enormous introspection to his role, as a principal in this for a long race rather than a sprint. The clever casting of the former Heartbreak Kid, now as responsible adult, pays off with great dividends.
Aden Young, who appears from episode 2, underplays his role as Detective Bilic and Mirrah Foulkes impresses as a toughened member of staff who will undergo change. Di Adams is especially good in the difficult role of the abrasive Deputy Principal. Supporting players also include Deborah Kennedy, George Xanthis, Michael Denkha, Andrea Demetriades and Salvatore Coco.
But it is the young cast, some of whom are first-time performers, that really elevates The Principal. Rahel Romahn as the angry, disconnected Tarek puts in a dynamic performance, in the centre of school allegiances and family crisis. He is ably matched by Tyler De Nawi, Aliki Matangi, and Thuso Lekwape. The story is all the more convincing for having cast with such diversity and avoiding teen “soap” faces.
Director Kriv Stenders also washes the visuals with an arid yellow hue, draining it of rich colours, and adding to its bleak, working-class universe. But the camera brings us intimately into the emotions of Bashir, ensuring we stay connected.
Writers Kristen Dunphy and Alice Addison, together with co-creator and producer Ian Collie, have served up an intelligent, often-confronting look at inner city education, balanced with a crime that rips its community apart. This ghetto may be a generation apart from Heartbreak High, but it marks a solid return to local drama by SBS.
Let’s hope it’s not another two years for the next one.
The Principal premieres 8:30pm Wednesday on SBS and continues next Thursday.