Hybrid lives: 21st century snapshots

Tina Kaufman

Christina Heristanidis and her mum, Christina, Dear Bert

Christina Heristanidis and her mum, Christina, Dear Bert

Television viewers feeling jaded by the interminable parades, day-long political re-enactments, and formal gatherings with worthy speeches (that seem to have comprised much of the TV component of this Year of Federation) should look forward to Hybrid Life, the contribution from SBS television which goes to air in June. Instead of stodgy and longwinded celebrations of the past, they’ll see something that in its very energy, diversity and multiple viewpoints, delivers a much more representative idea of what it means to live in Australia today. Back in 1999, when SBS was deliberating on their contribution to the national celebration, they decided not to look back as everyone else seemed to be doing, but instead to compile a portrait of a contemporary Australia, where 40 percent of its inhabitants were either born elsewhere or came from families where one or both parents were born overseas.

Hybrid Life is a series of 13 short films, personal stories from filmmakers from distinct ethnic communities that, in an exhilarating accumulation of style, story, and personality, present rapid fire snapshots of a generation of Australians who live in and try to make sense of 2 different cultures—maintaining the language and mores of the country where they or their parents were born, while adapting and settling in to their new home, new school, new ways of living.

From a mother coping with the demands of a new baby and reliving the obsession with Bert Newton that began when she was growing up (learning English from the television) to a woman of Russian descent whose connections to her family are re-activated by a sudden call from an aunt missing for 22 years; from a teacher in an Islamic school at last learning how to talk to his father to a wedding photographer who helps young couples create their fantasies in images that will keep forever; from a Vietnamese orphan airlifted to Australia at the end of the war who returns to Saigon as a young woman inquiring into her past to a young Vietnamese schoolgirl whose mother wants her to skip school to help get the sewing finished in the backyard clothing factory; from the young people who congregate in the shopping mall in multicultural Parramatta to the son who has to pick up a relative from Croatia for his father on the night when he already has big plans with his mates; the characters in these stories have complex relationships with their families, their communities, and both the past and the future.

But it’s perhaps the cumulative effect that’s most powerful as you watch the series. Each half hour program is personal and intimate, with the filmmaker working through complex feelings about families and the conjunctions of different cultures, and yet they combine to weave together a portrait of an immensely rich cultural tapestry that spreads out from the crowded inner-city to the sprawling outer suburbs and into the regions. And, in several of the films, when the filmmakers go back to the country they came from as young children, or from which their parents came, what is learned contributes to their lives in Australia.

Given its audience and remit, it was natural for SBS to want to ensure that a range of ethnicities and backgrounds be reflected in what it chose to produce as its component of the year of Federation, and Brigid Ikin, then head of SBS Independent, decided that that hybridity should be inherent in the styles of the programs as well. Since its establishment in 1994, SBS has commissioned more than 400 hours of quality Australian production, ranging from low budget features to drama series, animation, and single documentaries and documentary series from independent filmmakers, but Hybrid Life has been one of the most challenging projects undertaken.

Series producer Megan McMurchy was appointed and a national mailout was sent to the database SBS had compiled of all those filmmakers with a migrant background it had had dealings with or knew of, while the project was also advertised in the industry press. Two page proposals for a documentary or drama concept were asked for, and from the 200 applications received a short list of 17 was given development funding, and finally 13 were chosen to go into production through 2000. Final selections were made by McMurchy in consultation with Documentary Commissioning Editor John Hughes for the 9 documentary programs, and with Debbie Lee for the 4 short dramas. Financial support for 8 of the documentaries came from the National Council for the Centenary of Federation. For McMurchy, this was a special and unusual working experience and she’s pleased that what looked to be an exciting series has more than lived up to its promise. A number of the programs from Hybrid Life have already become finalists in both the Dendy and the Atom (Australian Teachers on Media) Awards.

Hybrid Life screens Fridays, 8pm, on SBS from June 8: Dear Bert, Sparky D Comes to Town, Wee Jimmy; June 15: Parra, Delivery Day, Saturn’s Return; June 22: The Last Pecheniuk; June 29: Always a Visitor; July 6: Missing Vietnam; July 13: The Brides of Khan; July 20: Cosenza Vecchia; July 27: Islands; August 3: From Here to Ithaca

Delivery Day, Islands & Sparky D Comes to Town have been nominated for ATOM Awards; The Last Pecheniuk & Sparky D Comes to Town are nominees in the Dendy Awards, Sydney Film Festival, June 8-22; Wee Jimmy was a Certificate of Merit Winner in the Shorts for Kids Category, Golden Gate Awards, San Francisco International Film Festival, April 19-May 3

RealTime issue #43 June-July 2001 pg. 14

© Tina Kaufman; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2001