Tuesday, 8 April 2014

John Safran - From racing around the world to a Murder in Mississippi

John Safran looking authorly. 

I’ve had a crush on John Safran ever since he recited the lyrics to Dire Straits’ Romeo and Juliet on ABC's Race Around the World in the late '90s.  

Mourning a breakup, Safran looked forlornly into the camera. "You promised me everything/You promised me thick and thin/ Now you just say, Oh Romeo, yeah/You know I used to have a scene with him," he said, perfectly capturing the dismissive, blasé tone of a lover who leaves. It was alchemy -  a mixture of humour, dagginess (Dire Straits!) and pathos that typifies his work. 

On Saturday, I attended his gig ‘Murder in Mississippi’ – part of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. It was billed as a literary event – a deep-dive into the makings of the true crime book Safran wrote about the murder of Richard Barrett, a white supremacist in Mississippi. Safran had filmed Barrett a year previously as part of his Race Relations documentary series.

During the gig, Safran showed the footage of him revealing to Barrett that a DNA test proved Barrett had black African ancestry. Barrett had graciously invited Safran from “Australia TV’ to say a few words at his organisation’s Spirit of America Day awards, where white American men are given awards for pretty much being just that. As Safran delivers his big reveal, Barrett is seen nodding politely in the background, as though he’s in on the joke. Inwardly, he must have been seething. Safran was there under false pretences – ostensibly to film the awards in good faith, when really, he was setting Barrett up.

In the book, Safran recounts extracting saliva from a balloon blown up by Barrett, which he deposited into a DNA testing kit and sent for expert analysis. As Safran took questions from the audience, my unspoken one was, what would have happened if the DNA test didn’t reveal any black ancestry in Barrett’s result? Wouldn't the whole premise of the segment have fallen over? The answer is revealed in Safran’s book, under the sub-heading, “the magician’s trick”.  Without spoiling it here, I confess to feeling a bit cheated by the revelation and it left me wondering, would Louis Theroux have done that? 

Safran admits to learning from the likes of Louis Theroux (who has exalted the book) and Michael Moore. All three are masters at using gonzo techniques to expose the fault lines in modern society. 

From his earliest pieces in Race Around the World to his more recent John Safran vs God and Race Relations, Safran has fused his obvious curiosity about the world with his trademark humour and a willingness to do whatever it takes to get the story, even if that sometimes means suppressing his own truths. 

He referred to watching an interview Theroux did for his Weird Weekends series, where the subject kept dropping the word ‘nigger’ into the conversation. Theroux asked him to stop using that term, because he found it offensive. “I would never do that!” said Safran to laughs from the audience. “I’d be happy the person was saying racist things, because I’d be thinking about the footage." 

Safran talks self-deprecatingly about his choices and hints at some regrets. The goodwill towards him in the full house on Saturday night was palpable, in contrast to the reaction he said he’d had from the Jewish community (of which he is a member), some of whom were outraged at his work on Race Relations.

Generally, though, Safran is the guy you’re always rooting for. He often comments in interviews that he doesn’t think through the consequences of his actions. But he’s too smart not to. He knows what makes a good story on camera. Like Theroux (and unlike Moore) Safran presents as a likeable deer in the headlights, with a genuine curiosity about people and his subjects. He’s unconventionally good looking; with a lisp and a square jaw that you sometimes fear is going to cop a belting. He is the Trojan horse. The wise man parading as the court jester.

Safran’s skill is in taking us on the journey with him. We may giggle at his antics, but he digs at the uncomfortable truths that are sealed deep within our society and within us. As he said in the talk, it’s easy for Australians to condemn obvious racism when it happens in the deep south of America. But as soon as he challenges his own culture, the smiles fade and the otherwise thought-provoking aspects of his work get lost in the stampede to condemn his methods.

Safran talks about the serendipitous moments that drove him to write Murder In Mississippi. It’s in the letting go – of allowing the story to evolve organically without a scripted outcome that the book medium serves him. There’s no pressure to shoot, edit and file like the early crucible days of Race Around the World or later TV work.

The story that emerges, although more languid, is compelling and thought-provoking, while still being (thankfully), uniquely Safranesque.

Diana Elliott.

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