‘Insider, outsider’ John Safran is at home on SBS

When SBS asked John Safran to look into forgotten Jewish-Australian history, he was never going to follow the script.

When John Safran delivered his first cut of his episode of Who the Bloody Hell Are We? to SBS he had strayed from the documentary blueprint and began questioning the research which told a more presentable history.

But you hire John Safran, you get John Safran.

Thankfully SBS didn’t just love what they saw, they wanted more of it.

“They really, really wanted that. As soon as we sent them a cut, where I’m sort of undercutting what the official history, they were straight away, ‘Oh, my God, just do that. That’s what we want!'” he tells TV Tonight.

“I was told the neat version where everything was good for the Jews as convicts. And I was like, ‘Let’s not do it.’ But the blueprint of the show was if there were Jews on the First Fleet, we’ve got to cover them. So it kind of forced me into different stories to find the little ‘knotty’ bits.

“I really vibe with SBS, because they kind of get where I’m coming from and how it’s so appropriate for SBS because I’m an insider / outsider. A lot of people who are in minorities kind of feel that way. It’s not ‘Woe is me, I’m a minority in Australia,’ but you’re still like an insider, and an outsider… that’s why it fits so well on SBS.”

Safran covers the Jewish chapter of the three part series, which also includes Adam Liaw on forgotten Chinese immigration history and Cal Wilson on New Zealand stories that have been overlooked.

Amongst Safran’s stories is the tale of Esther Abrahams who in Sydney in 1788 on board the Lady Penrhyn, ond later married Major George Johnston.

“She becomes essentially the First Lady of the colony,” he continues. “The way it was presented in the research was ‘This is great! A land of opportunity and freedom for Jews!’ Not like back in Europe. But when I spoke to her great-great-great-great grandaughter you start finding out convicts weren’t allowed to publicly profess any religion. They had to go to an Anglican church on Sunday.

“I asked, ‘Is that what she would have wanted?’ and she said, ‘No, of course not!’

“You could be upwardly mobile as a Jew as long as you renounce your Judaism, get your kids baptised, show up to church… so that’s obviously a bit more complicated.”

Safran highlights anti-semitic poetry from the works of Henry Lawson and Norman Lindsay.

“They’re the first people who kind of set up the story of what it means to be Australian. Because before then, it was more like, ‘We’re British people, and we just happen to be on this other continent.’ But then Henry Lawson and people around him really started defining what it means to be an Australian. But it’s really interesting that when that was happening, you also had Henry Lawson having a go at the Jews. Another poet was blaming the Jews for the drought in Australia. So when I saw that I realised it definitely wasn’t as simple as the Jews caming here and being accepted as white people.”

He delves into the history of legendary general WWI Sir John Monash who led a brigade in Gallipoli and -bizarrely- whilst filming scenes at Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance encounters far right extremists taking social media photos outside to promote Neo-Nazi values. According to Safran, that’s a version of history that only makes sense if you don’t know John Monash was Jewish.

Safran considers also whether Jews who escaped the Holocaust were finally safe from persecution in post-war multicultural Australia, and an ambitious grand plan to relocate Jews from WWII Europe into the Kimberley.

“I’d vaguely heard about real talks to set up Jewish homeland in the Kimberley, but I didn’t really know anything about it. So it was good to go up there and dig into that. But even then I worked out my own little knotty situation… they never asked the Indigenous people. How messed up is that?” he suggests.

Religion has always featured heavily in Safran’s work, whether being crucified in the Philippines, exploring exorcisms, voodoo, or running naked through Jerusalem in his first work, short doco contest Race Around the World in 1997.

He isn’t sure how his own community will receive his latest work, skeptical that experts will find it sneer at focussing on facts already understood in the community, and others wondering why “My auntie came in 1930 and set up the first teapot cup factory. Why didn’t you cover her?”

But religion and culture still fascinate him.

“To be involved in Jewish culture there’s going to be rituals… there’s Friday night meals with family, lighting candles and saying a prayer in Hebrew to God -but are most Jews really taking it on that level? Or is this a cultural ritual? You know what I mean?” he asks.

“I go to synagogue quite frequently -and the rabbi gets really annoyed when he reads stuff where I say this- but it is really hard to untangle culture. Am I there for cultural reasons versus, mystical, religious reasons or whatever. But I’m fascinated by religious rituals, and mysticism. I just kind of feel like, I’m Jewish, I might as well dig deeper into that.

“That’s kind of what the people who greenlight my work, want.

“The creative side, the storytelling side of me gets a lot of feedback that me looking into religion,and culture is what people want. They don’t want me talking about these other things. So I kind of respond to that.

“I’m not complaining. But it it is like if I dabble too much in something else, suddenly people’s eyes glaze over. ‘John, you’re not the one to want to talk about this.'”

Safran continues to write books, and although he is promoting his SBS documentary on mainstream media, largely avoids it.

As one who entered the Australian media as an anarchic disruptor has Safran mellowed and does he recognise change 25 years on?

“Every time I go out to do a new project, I find the backdrop to the world has changed in some way in regards to recording and filming. The big one is obviously everyone’s got a camera in their phone now. So if I go to protest, to cover it for one of my books, everyone’s filming everything. It’s so different from when I started, and I had to sell the idea of why I’m filming or whatever,” he recalls.

“Now it’s just like ‘Why wouldn’t I be filming? Everyone else here is filming!’

“There’s even this thing now where if I’m at a protest, I get filmed by the Neo Nazis and they upload that stuff and then that becomes this whole weird thing…. It’s like ‘John’s hanging out with Neo Nazis.’ On the one hand, I don’t care. But their point is ‘Ooh, is that problematic?’ So the whole backdrop to the world has changed. But I find it fun and it just means I have to zig and zag.

“I don’t say this in a pretentious way but I would love to do something a bit softer and easier. But it’s a bit like, I can’t write science fiction. I don’t have a plan B. I don’t know how to do these other things except for this thing I do which is a bit trolling, investigative or whatever… like SBS were not saying to me ‘Hey John soften it!’ As soon as they saw I was poking at things they were like ‘Yes! Turn that up!'” he explains.

“I can’t get a soft thing greenlit. I can only get me being the smart troublemaker greenlit, which I kind of like.”

Who the Bloody Hell Are We? screens 7:30pm Wednesday on SBS.

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