No one can spot the red flags of family violence in SBS’s gripping drama Safe Home

Save articles for later

Add articles to your saved list and come back to them any time.

Mabel Li lays her hand on Aisha Dee’s arm. “In this next take, I’m going to be really mean to you,” she murmurs, a little anxiously. “Is that OK?” Dee reassures her. Of course. That’s fine. Apart from the fact that both women are engaged in what Hollywood legend Jeff Bridges likes to call “advanced pretending”, it’s clear Li does not have a mean bone in her body.

Aisha Dee stars in the SBS drama Safe Home, which is based around a handful of characters who converge around a family violence legal centre.Credit: SBS

But the exchange is indicative of the vibe on the set of Safe Home, a tent-pole drama for SBS that tackles that most distressing of subjects – family violence – with compassion, nuance, and, most surprisingly, wit. The four-part series is something of a passion project for a group of young women (and some more experienced ones) trying to do things a little differently, both behind the camera and on the screen.

“It’s been one of the most rewarding jobs of my entire life,” says Safe Home’s star, Aisha Dee. “I’ve never experienced a crew like this. Most of our departments are headed by women. There are so many queer people around. No one is someone who really fits the mould. It really feels like a safe environment to explore this content.”

Every production describes itself as one big happy family – sometimes through gritted teeth – but on the set of Safe Home that actually feels true. For instance, Hal Cumpston, the actor who plays Dee’s flatmate in the show, left for LA soon after shooting wrapped, where he bunked down in Dee’s apartment there, becoming her actual flatmate. A key figure in the process was intimacy co-ordinator Amy Cater, who was available not just to the female members of the cast but to the men and the crew, and who became universally beloved.

The other not-quite-normal but very welcome aspect of the production was its pronounced female skew. “When it comes to stories about women I really love the ones that feature strong connections between women, a community of women,” Dee says. “And that was something I really saw at FLVC (Family Violence Legal Centre, the fictional legal centre at the heart of the drama) as well as the women making the show.”

“I want to tell stories that for some reason make sense of the world to me,” says producer Imogen Banks.Credit: Sarah Enticknap

For producer Imogen Banks (Offspring, Tangle), creating a workplace where people actively wanted to be was crucial. “I really care about process,” she says. “And culture. The day to day, the making of things. After a while in this industry you realise that’s the bit that you live. You live the process. You don’t live the results.” Also important: ideas. “I want to tell stories that for some reason make sense of the world to me,” she says.

Banks established her new company, Kindling Pictures, precisely to promote emerging talent and tackle content that’s less mainstream. Which made Safe Home the perfect fit. A first-time writer, a female-focused story, a good chewy subject. “It felt like the perfect throwdown project. Planting a stake in the ground. This is who we are, this is the kind of work we want to make.”

Banks was particularly taken by Anna Barnes’ script: “A complex, beautiful story told in a smart way that was entertaining. I think that’s a really hard thing to do.” The issue of family violence was important to Banks and a lot of people in her life. It’s a huge social issue. But it’s not a fun issue. “And she’d found a way into it that sort of exploded it from the inside,” Banks says. “It’s not an earnest project,” she stresses. “I don’t ever want to make earnest television. But having said that, it takes the issues very seriously. I just can’t praise Anna enough.”

“I’m proud we were able to create such a complex story about family violence that reflects a lot of the real life issues I saw when I was working in the sector,” says Barnes, who based Dee’s character, Phoebe, loosely on herself. Barnes’ years in a communications role in a legal centre like the one depicted in the series opened her eyes to the complexities around family violence.

“It was important to me that we captured the nuances of all of our characters,” she says. “In the writers’ room we talked a lot about moving away from simplistic representations of ‘perfect victims’ and monster perpetrators.” Equally important was capturing the reality of the issues, in all their messiness. “While there is so much trauma and anguish in the family violence sector there is also an incredible amount of hopefulness and overwhelming humanity,” Barnes says, “and it was important to me that we were able to showcase a little part of that in Safe Home.”

Thomas Cocquerel and Aisha Dee in a scene from Safe Home.Credit: Sarah Enticknap

The other key member of the gang – and another relative newcomer – is director Stevie Cruz-Martin. This is her first long-form TV drama, and she relished the opportunity Barnes’ script and Banks’ support gave her to jump in and have a crack.

“I’ve enjoyed being a bit of an outsider because it’s easier to take risks,” Cruz-Martin says. “You want to do a good job, but you’re also going – how can we do this differently?”

A central point of difference for Cruz-Martin lay in the casting. “I really wanted to look at different people, and in the [audition] tapes I was searching for the 10 percent of something that’s unique – rather than a 90 per cent great tape.”

The term “diversity” has become pretty hollowed-out in recent years but one of the brilliant sleights of hand Safe Home achieves is to present an exceptionally diverse cast, in a way that feels completely natural and effortless.

“I’m a queer Mexican-Scottish woman who’s lived in Australia since she was four,” Cruz-Martin says. “My friends and the people I know are very diverse and I just wanted to reflect that.”

The cast is not just diverse in appearance. It includes everyone from old hands like Virginia Gay and emerging talent like Dee and Li, to people with almost zero screen experience. Yet each performance feels as polished and complete as the next. “There were a lot of conversations,” Cruz-Martin says. “I really tried to involve them in the process as much as possible so it [the character] felt really lived in for them.“

She also highlights the general vibe of supportiveness and safety, the idea that it was OK to fail. “I know a lot of people say it, but we really did become a family,” she says. “And I think because there were so many women at the heart of the show there was this maternal energy across it.”

Safe Home is certainly totally willing to go there. “But I also really loved the humour and the solidarity you found among the women,” Cruz-Martin says. “And that came with Anna’s writing. A lot of people will be thinking this is going to be such a difficult watch. And obviously there is confronting material. But it’s also balanced quite beautifully by the humour, and the tenderness.”

Safe Home, SBS, Thursday, May 11 at 8.30pm.

Find out the next TV, streaming series and movies to add to your must-sees. Get The Watchlist delivered every Thursday.

Most Viewed in Culture

From our partners

Source: Read Full Article