by James Fletcher

Indigenous Deaths in Custody, the rise in Asian Hate Crimes due to the pandemic, attacks on Muslim Women, Asylum Seekers & Refugees, the targeting of indigenous youth and the profiling of African Australians all feature in the six-part series UNHEARD, which excels in connecting audiences with survivors of these attacks and also stripping away the buffer between ignorance and inaction.

Produced by the global social activism group LADbible, who you might remember from their 2019 campaign to have Australia’s largest living organism, the Great Barrier Reef, recognised as an Australian citizen in order to have it protected under our human rights status, UNHEARD marks the first broadcast production from the Australian chapter of the UK born organisation.

“Some of these issues have been close to my heart for a while now,” explains series producer Shahn Devendran. “But I think what we saw in 2020 were thousands of Australians taking to the streets and demanding better coverage of issues of racial injustice here in Australia.

Shahn Devendran

“And It raised a really good question: why is it that most Australians know who George Floyd is but not many know the names David Dungay Junior and TJ Hickey? At LADbible Australia, we reach over half a billion people worldwide and what we look to do is ask, how do we engage our audience and lend our platform to those communities and those partners and organisations who are fighting racial injustice day in and day out?”

While Devendran admits that the narrative of racism in Australia – which he acknowledges that he has been a target of – has largely been left to mainstream media to craft, formatting and producing UNHEARD demanded a more thoughtful approach in order to avoid causing knee-jerk divisiveness.

“The first steps were reaching out to National Justice Project, National Aboriginal Torres Strait Legal Services, Islamophobia Register, Asian Australian Alliance, Deadly Connections, Human Rights Commission, Refugee Council of Australia among many others, and we asked them how can we best support the work they do?

“We developed the ‘Unheard’ campaign, which was essentially built around educating our audience on the issues and in promoting action. But also, setting an example across the Australian media landscape to consistently cover these issues and make sure that we’re providing the voices on all sides of the story.

“We launched that campaign in February this year. So far, we’ve generated and reached over 100 million people worldwide and helped generate more than 250,000 signatures for our partners’ petitions. As we went through the campaign and built relationships with those partners and the communities they represent, we began identifying emblematic incidents and basically people have gone through these situations who really speak to the core issues that we feel need to be addressed in Australia.

“We built out six half hour episodes addressing indigenous deaths in custody, the targeting of indigenous youth, attacks towards Asians during COVID, the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees, the vilification of the African community as well as attacks towards Muslims in Australia.

“Once we were able to identify those stories we wanted to tell, we really thought the best place to start was telling the human side of it. Rather than say, if you’re from this community you should care about this, we really started each episode with making it about a mother who’s lost her son, a daughter who tried to take her mother to theatre and was assaulted or two sisters who tried to go to the shops and got threatened with a knife.

“I think that when we started from there, and we realised that this could happen to my mother or my sister or in any situation, then we would connect with a really broad audience. And when we start to bring in statistics around these issues, we started to paint a pattern of what’s really going on here in Australia and you can see exactly how broad and frequent these issues are.”

It’s this considered approach that imbues UNHEARD with its humanity, and in return its power, allowing each story to be told by real people, each sharing a devastating and traumatic story that sadly, are as familiar to each other as they are completely individual. And while listening to these actual accounts can be difficult at times to digest, Devendran and his team, where possible, support each account with actual footage of the attacks, either from CCTV cameras and /or mobile phone footage, infusing each account with raw, visceral evidence that delivers a near physicality to the already emotional anecdotes. It’s an uncomfortable, and shameful menagerie of abuses to watch, but as Devendran explains, that is part of the point.

“An important first step, and Jenny Leong – an MP who appears in one of the episodes – put it really well, she said that we’ve reached a stage now where we need to just tell the stories and make people sit with them uncomfortably for a while. I think acknowledging that there is an issue is an important first step because I think people try to avoid these issues.

“There’s a certain element of preaching to the choir in some cases. If we can elevate the voices of Australians, both indigenous and non-indigenous that are coming from our diverse communities, I think people around the world will understand that like many other larger countries, we have these same issues and they’re failing to be addressed.

“What we hope with the campaign and the documentary series is to spread awareness but also to promote action. To really put a focus and garner the support of as wider an audience as we can, to really drive change where and when we can.

“An important point to note is that we have identified these issues in the past. In the Royal Commission in 1991, we saw that indigenous population in incarceration was around 14% and there was advice on how we could begin to defer indigenous communities away from incarceration in those circumstances. Instead, that number’s doubled in the last 30 years, so in some cases, things are definitely getting worse.”

The story of racism in Australia shouldn’t be news to anyone, especially with recent governments actively implementing divisive policies, coddled by Australian right-wing media commentators, a seemingly narcissistic cesspool of personalities where journalism has become an abstract concept. Racism is ingrained in Australian culture. It’s a simple fact. We need to deal with it, and the only way to do so is to acknowledge it, understand its origins, and for many of us, choose to be pro-active in diluting its influence and impact on our neighbours. And for many, an honest and sincere first step would be to sit, watch and listen to each and every story, as told by real, everyday Australians through UNHEARD.

“Each episode is driven by the voices of those affected and impacted,” reiterates Shahn Devendran. “And what we did was make sure that the directors, and the writers behind each episode were from, and connected to those relative communities, so we could really deliver an organic, authentic way of telling these stories.”

UNHEARD is available to stream now from Prime Video

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