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Benjamin Law on bringing his family to TV

Arts & Culture

The Family Law, SBS’s new comedy series produced by Matchbox Pictures and based on Benjamin Law’s memoir of the same name, is being promoted as the first Australian TV series to focus on a family with Asian heritage.

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But the Chinese-Australian Laws are not the first Asian-Australian family to be regulars in a local series ­- that honour belongs to the Lim family, who moved onto Ramsay Street on Neighbours in 1993. But as the family was accused of eating another family’s dog, its time on Australia’s most famous fictitious street was short-lived.

Australia has one of the most multicultural populations in the world, with more than a quarter of all citizens having a parent born overseas. But our TV screens are populated almost entirely with white faces, and it’s something that most audiences don’t even notice is odd.

“I was watching commercial breakfast television over the summer holidays,” Law says, “and it took me a few hours of watching it to realise I hadn’t seen a single non-white person on either Today or Sunrise for hours and hours.”

There’s a reason that many of us rarely take note: we’ve never expected to see many non-white faces on TV. When there are non-Caucasian characters in our dramas or comedies, they’re usually in minor supporting roles and usually ethnic stereotypes. Or they’re accused of eating dog.

Law grew up on the Sunshine Coast in a predominately Caucasian area, and it was very rare for him to see Asian faces on TV throughout the ’80s and ’90s.

“Growing up, I just assumed that Australia was predominately white,” he says. “Even my upbringing felt white, and I guess watching TV just amplified that sense that Australia was predominately white.”

It wasn’t until he moved to Brisbane and then Sydney that he says he realised just how diverse Australia actually is.

But in The Family Law, race isn’t a massive focus, Law says.

“We were quite aware that we weren’t going to make a show about race, necessarily, even though I love those shows. I think we decided early on that The Family Law was going to be as much about being Chinese as Friends is a show about being white.”

Law’s book is a collection of essays about the 33-year-old writer’s family and family history, which covers incidents from the 1970s through to the 2000s. The TV series (written by Law and Marieke Hardy) takes place over one hot summer when his parents’ marriage breaks down, and is told through the eyes of 14-year-old Benjamin Law, played by Trystan Go.

“The book is non-fiction – at least it’s non-fiction in my mind and how I remember it. But what we knew with the show is that we weren’t making a documentary, we were making a comedy inspired by and based on the book.

“And in order to get a lot of the emotional truths that we wanted to hit, we had to be almost a little bit promiscuous in our fidelity to what actually happened.”

The Law family hasn’t yet watched the series – they’re saving it until it’s broadcast on Thursday, at which time Benjamin will fly up to Brisbane to watch with them – but they’ve been involved in many aspects of its creation. They even make a cameo in the series as what was initially scripted as “Judgemental Chinese family”.

“It was a hilariously surreal situation – the whole family met this fake version of themselves.”

Law, who’s best known for his essays, books, journalism and columns, has lined up several TV projects for the near future, most of which he says he can’t talk about just yet. But he’s currently working as a researcher on Deep Water, a feature length documentary by Blackfella Films due to air on SBS this year about gay hate crimes in Sydney in the 1980s.

“I think Australian TV is really exciting at the moment, and I think we’ve gotten past that stage where we’re even questioning whether Australian TV matches overseas content.

“I think the last few years has totally proven it with the stuff made by Blackfella Films and Matchbox Pictures. I’ve really enjoyed watching it, so I’m excited to now be a part of it.”

The Family Law airs on SBS from January 14 at 8.30pm.

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