EXCLUSIVE: If you bought yourself a kebab in inner Sydney or Collingwood last December you might want to check that your private conversation isn’t being broadcast as primetime entertainment in the SBS series Kebab Kings.
Welcome to the brave new world of ‘fixed rig’ observational TV where covert cameras and microphones remove the immediate need for camera crews in order to observe uninhibited behaviour. It’s a genre on the rise internationally, such as UK series The Family, 24 Hours in A&E, Educating Yorkshire and The Fried Chicken Shop.
SBS series Kebab Kings put cameras into George Street’s Oz Turk and Collingwood’s Smith Kebabs last December, filming both staff and customers for its three part series.
At best, the show captures a multicultural melting point of colourful ‘east meets west’ exchanges and shows the extraordinary lengths hardworking Turkish, Syrian and Indian-Australians go to sustain a small business. At worst, it is loaded with bad behaviour of drunken, abusive, uncouth, racist Australians on display in the wee hours of the morning.
While the filming methodology may be technically progressive, the area of consent is a different question altogether and differs significantly from programmes that are comprehensive in sign-off from the subject before broadcast.
“One person described it as a ‘hidden camera’ show, which isn’t true at all.”
Executive producer Michael Cordell told TV Tonight that Cordell Jigsaw Zapruder had plenty of experience in the observational genre. For Kebab Kings they endeavoured to turn the shops into ‘public spaces’ diminishing the expectation of privacy on the part of customers.
“We absolutely take all these issues of consent and access very seriously. We’ve been making observational filmmaking or documentaries for a long time. Bondi Rescue in particular throws up all kinds of issues not unfamiliar with this, so we’re pretty familiar with dealing with it,” he said.
“Fundamentally what we aimed to do was turn those two shops into a public space. We had very clear signage both inside and outside the shop. One person described it as a ‘hidden camera’ show, which isn’t true at all. The cameras were really obvious, we didn’t make any attempt to hide them. The microphones were almost embarrassingly-obvious at times.
“Our aim was to turn them into public spaces where people wouldn’t have an expectation of privacy.”
A filming notice was placed at the entrance of both shops: ‘CJZ is currently filming a documentary in these premises. Audio and images in the area are likely to be recorded.’ Cameras were installed inside the shop while microphones were placed inside fruit bowls and take-away containers, pot plants and table-top Christmas trees to capture audio.
“There were signs across the counter right near the cash register, cameras sitting just above the menus,” he explained.
“So we felt the signage in the shop was clear enough for people to be aware of what was happening.
“There were very clear Sennheiser mikes poking out of lunchboxes on the main counters. We weren’t relying on people to necessarily see every microphone or camera but we felt on balance (with) the signage we had and the visibility of a lot of the cameras ….and if they happened to see the Sennheisers on the counter, then on balance that was enough for them to know a film production was taking place in the shop.”
“There are some situations where it is a little grey”
In the hours of footage that ensued producers got an eyeful: everything from customers discussing private parts, sexual desires, drug use, mental health, to drunken abuse, exposing themselves, unfiltered racism, personal threats and phone conversations. Not all of them were approached for individual consent.
“There are some situations where it is a little grey,” Cordell acknowledged.
“Being filmed in a public space you have no legal right to privacy.
“Unless you’re defaming someone or unless there is some other law you’re breaking, there is no law around privacy.
“So it’s an interesting situation when you’ve got a drunk person standing outside a kebab shop behaving badly. But if they take a 1 metre step inside that shop where there a lots of people and it’s still a public space, is that really any different? They are the areas to me that are sometimes a little bit grey. We make a judgement call about whether it’s appropriate or not to film them.”
Producers observing upstairs or in the shops decide whom to follow-up for further interviews with camera crews or to obtain consent. But there are some situations, such as a near-brawl about to explode, where sending in a producer would be dangerous to staff.
“There are times when you don’t feel it is appropriate to screen a story or if you do you de-identify someone. They are ethical and moral decisions we often make on our own, not forced to make by law,” he continued.
“There were plenty of scenes we decided to blur a story…. but generally we relied on the notion of the kebab shop being turned into a public space.
“In strictly legal terms if we’ve created a public space and we have the permission of the shop owner to film on their property and we have signage that makes it clear people are filmed, then unless we are defaming someone, unless somehow we’re in contempt of court, then legally it’s fairly clear we could probably use most of that footage. We make separate ethical decisions where we feel there is something we shouldn’t use for mental health reasons or whatever, but they are decisions we make on an ethical basis, not on a legal one.”
“We’ve shot plenty of backpackers doing crazy things”
Under ACMA’s Privacy Guidelines for Broadcasters, a person’s seclusion may be intruded upon (including in a public space) if the invasion is considered more than “fleeting.” In order for a breach to have occurred a complaint must be laid after the broadcast. Kebab Kings has pixellated a handful of its subjects, but it also incorporates a high number of backpackers -especially in the Sydney store- who may be oblivious to the fact their late-night antics are being broadcast in Australia 12 months after the event.
“There was a Welsh backpacker who was particularly drunk and behaving badly outside the shop, then came 2 metres inside the shop and continued behaving badly. So that’s a case where I think ‘buyer beware’ is probably fair enough,” Cordell insisted.
“While I’m happy to defend everything we included in the series, whether he lives here or not or whether there is a reduced chance of him contacting us or not, I think we’re on very safe ground using that material. As uncomfortable as it might be for him we’re in our rights to use it.
“We’ve shot plenty of backpackers doing crazy things and we haven’t got release forms for many of them. At Bondi there is probably less opportunity for them to know that they might be on camera and make a decision about it.”
The Privacy Guidelines also indicate special care must be taken in the use of material concerning a a person 16 years or under or a vulnerable person. So wouldn’t someone intoxicated be considered ‘vulnerable?’
“A drunk can be a vulnerable person. I think you need to make a judgement decision case by case,” he admitted.
“If someone is capable of walking into a shop, ordering food, paying money, then we feel we made it clear enough in the shop that they could well be filmed.”
Whether consenting to filming was clear enough to every intoxicated customer, TV Tonight understands it wasn’t clear to some industry professionals who didn’t realise they were being filmed when entering the Collingwood store.
“Masterchef was filming in Melbourne and I think there were a few situations where film industry people were in the shop. There was a woman who became aware she was filmed and we decided not to use that footage. Not because she was a television person, but because of personal reasons she made us aware of,” Cordell said.
“I’m not sure what date it was in the scheme of things, or how she became aware.”
The series also had to rework its narrative after Oz Turk owners Fatima and Nafi sold the premises after initial casting. But CJZ turned a potential negative into a positive, with ‘handover’ to young owners Fadi and Rami becoming a major storyline.
“After we cast the show they decided, completely unrelated to what we were doing, to sell the shop. Fatima wasn’t coaxed back but there was always going to be a hand-over period with the new owners. In fact it ended up being a better storyline for the show. It wasn’t what was going to happen originally. Sometimes serendipity is more entertaining than what you might imagine was planned.”
Having Fatima as part of the series was essential, given her ‘motherly’ disposition to staff and customers alike. She gives the series its heart amid its robust fly-on-the-wall parade.
“Fatima and Nafi welcome the homeless and the mentally ill inside the shop. We spent a lot of time with those people outside the shop, went to their house sometimes,” said Cordell.
“The bad behaviour was a small minority”
Similarly in Melbourne, Mustafa and wife Zareena display great acceptance of gay customers despite being at odds with their Muslim religion.
“My overwhelming impression was that whatever colour, creed or religion, most people behaved really well. The bad behaviour was a small minority and not restricted to race or colour,” Cordell noted.
“So there are some wonderful scenes in there of anglo-saxons behaving very well and of ethnic background not behaving well. Certainly it was a question we were interested in looking at: how do ‘mainstream Australians’ –for want of a better term- respond and react to people that run kebab shops? Are they polite? Is there a well-mannered and polite dialogue or are they sometimes condescending and rude?
“We didn’t set out with an agenda but it was certainly something we were keen to observe.
“My overwhelming impression was that most people get on really well. One of the charming things about the series is that it has a lot of warmth and heart and I think it projects a very optimistic view of how Australians get on.”
On that score, fixed rig filmmaking looks set to stay. Consider this your first and last warning.
Kebab Kings concludes 8:30pm Wednesday on SBS.