SBS TV show takes aim at war impact at home

April 30, 2011
No ordinary cop show, East West 101 explores complex cases that involve racial tensions across a diversity of Australian communi

East West 101
Created & produced by Steve Knapman & Kris Wyld
Directed by Peter Andrikidis
Starring Don Hany, Susie Porter & Matt Nable
Wednesdays, 8.30pm, SBSONE

The makers of critically acclaimed Australian crime series East West 101 say the third season, now airing Wednesday nights on SBS, is about the devastation wars in the Middle East have on Muslim and non-Muslim people in Australia.

It is a bold aim untouched by any other Australian network.

“Some of us feel untouched by war,” Kris Wyld, who created and produced the show with collaborator Steve Knapman, tells Green Left Weekly. “We hope East West 101 makes the audience feel the impact for themselves.”

Knapman and Wyld made the acclaimed police dramas Wildside (ABC 1997-99) and White Collar Blue (Network Ten 2002-03). They have blazed a path for engaging and realistic crime drama, with gritty subject matter and shocking truths about society.

The realism of East West 101 is especially pronounced in hand-held camera work and choppy editing. It is a show that demands an engaged and thinking audience.

It is a truly high standard of crime drama. The scripts are multi-layered and each series’ story arc tackles a long-term case with broad ramifications.

Each episode carries stories exploring complex cases that reach across the world and deep into a diversity of Australian communities.

In season three, the fallout of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are explored through violence in Australia.

But the impacts of conflicts in Somalia, Palestine/Israel, Bosnia and tensions in Maori communities are also explored.

Knapman says that throughout all three seasons, the first of which aired in December 2007, they “searched for the international connection”.

“This notion that Australia is cut off from the world, we resisted that.

“So the beginning of the show was set just after 9/11 and everybody was in a very strong climate of fear in this country, which was traded on by politicians and papers.

“We thought, the consequences of 9/11 were one thing, but also just who are these Muslim people? What do people know about them, how much do we understand Muslims living in Australia?”

This question is answered by the main character, detective Zane Malik (Don Hany), a Muslim cop in a major crime unit based in Sydney’s western suburbs.

Malik is devout, progressive and heavily conflicted. He has strong convictions, but also flaws.

He tries to negotiate the two worlds he is committed to — the police force and the Arab community of Sydney’s western suburbs, which more often stand opposed to each other than united.

The series’ multi-award winning director Peter Andrikidis has said the insights of a Muslim cop are unique in contemporary crime drama.

“His strength of purpose is very important”, Andrikidis says. “Malik’s journey is the audience’s journey … The audience will be seeing Australia through his Islamic eyes.”

Andrikidis lives in western Sydney, where much of the show is set — in suburbs such as Auburn, Lakemba and Cabramatta.

“I always try to present a Sydney that is more about its inner workings, rather than the harbour bridge glamour shots,” he tells GLW.

“The extras on the street are real people living there, and so we put the actors in real spaces. We create that look by being in Auburn.

“People tell us they see themselves on the screen, and a lot of police officers tell us they have lived this, they know Malik.

“You’re presenting role models for a whole community, people have seen it and said that’s what made them feel Australian.

“We’re the only ones doing that, really.”

The rest of Malik’s crime unit is ethnically and politically diverse, making it distinctive in contemporary Australian crime drama.

His partner is Maori Islander Sonny Koa (Aaron Fa’Aoso). His fellow officers — detective Helen Callas and constable Jung Lim — are hardly stereotypical white-bread Australians.

There are only two Caucasians in the lead cast. The squad commander is the ambitious superintendent Patricia Wright (Susie Porter). New squad member Neil Travis (Matt Nable), an affected Iraq war veteran, brings the violence of the Middle East conflicts to the fore of the show.

“The actual makeup of the squad is reflective of reality,” Wyld says. “Multicultural Australia is the reality. It did not try to create something that doesn’t exist.”

Knapman and Wyld explain that the show and most of its characters were inspired and developed by actual detectives in a crime unit in Sydney’s west.

“True stories can be more unusual than what you can invent,” Knapman says.

The show's inception was a two-year creative process of research and development. This included meeting and working with actual police and detectives who were the backbone of the show's inspiration.

Some of them held consultant positions on the show, such as detective Ali Rafik. Knapman says Rafik, an Egyptian and devout Muslim, “worked in a crime squad with a Samoan, a Lebanese Christian, and an Aussie bloke”.

“They became the inspiration for the show. We found them first, and then the show emerged.

“That’s the key thing. It was very grounded in real people.”

Wyld says of Rafik: “Not only did he bring authenticity from his work into our storytelling, but also from his cultural background into the character [of Malik]. He is also a brilliant creative mind.

“His whole family is very inspiring — and they give enormously to their community and to our community.”

Also unique and enriching is the Malik family, whose home the audience sees into with a depth and honesty not previously ventured into by other shows.

The shades of faith and practice of Islam is shown without a trace of tokenism, from general home life, to regular prayer and a heartbreaking Islamic funeral.

“It’s too easy to paint people in simplistic terms, to paint them as ‘the other’,” Wyld says.

Knapman says that commercial media in Australia reproduces dangerous stereotypes with little conscience.

“We tend to try and work from research and reading, and speaking to real people — and not sit around and try to please networks by coming up with stereotypes that make them feel comfortable, which is the way most other stuff is made.

“The whole notion of stereotyping people was part of what we railed against. But also we try to get the balance and the contradictions — our characters say conflicting things all the time.”

In the new season’s first episode, Malik walks in on the team watching footage of a violent $36 million robbery, the investigation of which will span the season.

“The theory is that robbery was committed to fund terrorist operations,” Knapman says.

In the show, Travis comments offhand: “This is why we need to stay in Afghanistan until the job's done.”

But Malik cuts in: “Staying in Afghanistan is not going to stop this — there’s just too many innocent people being killed.”

Wyld says East West 101 was about finding the story they felt was worth telling: “What story are we passionate about? Why do we want to tell the story? Is there an injustice that we think needs to be examined?

East West 101 shows real Australia — and it’s a positive thing. Because some networks present a very narrow view of what Australia is, and they think that’s what the audience wants.”

Knapman wants the show to expand people’s understanding of what Australia is made of. “There’s the tremendous amount of ignorance about the wars, refugees and Muslim Australians.

“But the show is not designed to be a didactic teaching device to convince you of any view. It’s dramatic, exciting and mysterious, intriguing, all of these things.

“The idea is to entertain you while, maybe, the status quo position gets challenged through the different characters’ points of view on all these things.”

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