Before the final episode airs tomorrow, Alex Casey looks at the riveting Australian documentary series Struggle Street.
What’s it about?
Struggle Street is a three part Australian documentary series, examining life in poverty-stricken suburb of Mt Druitt, just west of Sydney’s twinkling lights and sharp business suits. Following various characters within the community, the camera observes their daily hurdles coping with unemployment, mental health issues and dangerous drug use. It has divided audiences – is it deserving of the “poverty porn” label (exploitation and objectification of the poor for financial gain), or does it illuminate systematic social problems that are far too expansive to tackle in the six o’clock soundbite?
The enormous Kennedy family are the focus of Struggle Street, the centre of which is the heart-of-gold Peta, who works as a home-carer for her husband Ashley. Suffering from arthritis, a head injury and a heart condition, their relationship still shines with banter and unwavering optimism that’s impossible not to grin at. For example, at a community fair, he goads her to pole dance in front of a crowd. She bashfully hides herself away, telling him to shut up. The community get-togethers in particular are a glimmer of joy, in what otherwise feels like a futile lifelong fight.
The heartwarming moments are few and far between, though, as the series doesn’t shy away from the more uncomfortable events that stray in and out of their daily lives. With a family of 10 children and 18 grandchildren, Peta and Ashley do everything to support the younger generation of Kennedys on around $300 a week. Their son Corey is addicted to ice, and frequently steals from them in order to acquire more drugs. “’Ice… it’s evil. Ice has changed him and everything about him,” Peta Kennedy says, stoically eyeballing the camera.
Aside from the Kennedys, Struggle Street also sheds light on people who have been left with not only nothing, but no-one. There’s William, an Aboriginal man forced to build a makeshift home in the woods, who still holds community as the most valuable asset he can have. “If I was rich, I would build a mansion for the homeless people of every nationality,” he grins. Among others, we also meet Bailey, the young homeless woman who takes us through her desolate home after it was robbed several months ago. The living room looks something from a post-apocalyptic horror, with bloodstains on the floor and walls. Unfortunately, we’re in the present, and this couldn’t be further from a movie.
Who’s it for?
I think it would be impossible for someone to watch this and not have a visceral reaction, one way or the other. This is a documentary aiming to open people’s eyes to their own webs of privilege. And everyone can benefit from that. Whether the audience chooses to engage with it as “poverty porn” is up to them.
The unflinching camera is one of the most powerful parts of this series. The filmmakers pass no judgement, and (seemingly, of course) leave nothing on the cutting room floor. We watch a pregnant addict take drugs and Corey sleep through his court appointment. It’s frustrating, sure, and is perfect ammo for the “dole bludger” army, if they wanted it. But is it the place of the filmmakers to interfere? Or do they have a responsibility to tell the story completely unfiltered and untouched, providing a raw look at this particular corner of reality? On the surface, a stereotype-seeker might readily slap on the label of lazy druggie, but Struggle Street allows us to see both the trees and the woods – she was born an addict to her own drug-using mother, and he was born into the entrenched cycle of extreme poverty, with substance abuse a welcome escape from the trappings of real life.
The introductory sequence to the series mentions “a government hellbent on budget cuts”, alluding to the institutional changes that have led to these particular circumstances. This agenda is quickly dropped, leaving holes for a few more references to better contextualise modern day Australia for the audience. What has happened to the financial support networks? Who are the benefit cuts now benefiting? A few more figures peppered through in the narration would have helped to flesh out the wider net of hurdles for these communities to overcome, and serve as a reminder that this is not a problem isolated to Druitt. There’s no denying that this is a complex task, which is perhaps why they dropped it after first mention.
Also, the narration frequently uses little rhyming schemes like “that’s how they do it, in the Druitt” which tonally seemed a little too jovial for the despairing situation.
Should I get amongst it?
If you are interested in devastating and revelatory viewing, the final of Struggle Street airs tomorrow at 9.30pm on TV One.
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