Struggle Street (2015)
On the topic of documentary truth, the SBS three-part series Struggle Street (2015) is an example of how the term ‘documentary’ can be used to shield producers from criticism for a particularly odious piece of ‘reality television’. The marketing trailer says it all: a scenic view of the Harbour Bridge switches to slim, tanned, bikini bodies frolicking on a beach, then a dark tunnel and a crash-sound in front of the sign “Mt Druitt – 45km west of Sydney CBD”. This bleak intro leads to a montage of squalor, drugs, police, fights, break-ins, endless profanities, heavily tattooed angry obese people, and a condescending voiceover saying “when you are dealt a lousy hand, who says you cant win?”. Struggle Street is made by the same producers of the British programs Skint (2009-2013) and Benefit Street (2014-2015) that triggered a wave of social media and talkback complaints of exploitation and public hissy fits about dole bludgers; so SBS knew what it was buying, and all with taxpayer funds.
Its hard to imagine more judgmental narration or more deliberate efforts to negatively stereotype a disadvantaged suburb. Comments like “its OK if you are rich, but its hard yakka if you are not” reveal this as trashy reality TV rather than the higher ground of documentary. The three-part series concentrates on a disability pensioner with early onset dementia and his second wife who support 10 children and 18 grandchildren in cramped Commission accommodation. One of his sons is brain damaged and another is a violent ice addict. It also features regular appearances by a homeless teenage sexual assault victim and a local Indigenous youth who lives rough and hunts wildlife for food. When we see any kind of community activity it is to emphasise collective failure or futility.
This program is voyeurism into the lives of defenceless and disadvantaged people struggling to cope. It has no respect for its subjects and has no ethical compass. Following the British experience, controversy was always part of its marketing and ratings strategy. As one observer put it, the wider issue is “whether it’s not merely distasteful, but if producing it is actually unconscionable.” (Rosewarne, 2015). The benchmark for the respected label of ‘documentary’ is the pursuit of social good, but Struggle Street commits social harm by confirming the prejudices of those who look down on the disadvantaged. There will always be easy targets for middle-class filmmakers to exploit, but this is poverty-porn of the worst kind and not an honest documentary.
Writer/Producer: Marc Radomsky