“I was rapt but I thought, ‘There’s no way known it’s going to be as good as last year.’ Because I thought it was so good,” says Catherine Deveny. “I was thrilled to be involved, and I wanted to do the best work that I could, but I just thought ‘F*** ….second album syndrome!’”
Deveny is speaking about a surprise invitation to appear on SBS documentary series Go Back To Where You Came From.
The show ignited debate about asylum seekers across Australia last year. Profound, bold and utterly captivating, it saw six ordinary Australians travel to Malaysia, Kenya, Jordan and the Congo to experience for themselves the plight of refugees in search of a better life. Fusing Reality TV techniques with Documentary, it attracted ratings, headlines and awards, including the presigious Rose D’Or Award from Switzerland.
Now the series has gravitated towards “prominent Australians.” Deveny, a writer, social commentator and stand-up comedian who has appeared on Q & A and The Project and written for numerous comedy shows, has also attracted headlines for her volatile opinions in social media.
She was as surprised as anybody to be asked by producers Cordell Jigsaw to join the next Go Back expedition.
“I thought I would be plucked out in the beginning stages. I kind of thought they might have the wrong number. So I just said ‘Yeah, sure!,” she says.
“I get contacted from bizarre shows and you just kind of go, ‘Yeah I’ll talk to you, but you’re not going to want to use me and that’s fine, no problem.’ I’ve never ever made a phone call asking to be on television ever.
“I’ve enjoyed some of the things I’ve done on television like Q & A and stuff. It’s exhausting but I’ve enjoyed parts of it. But it’s not something where I wake up and say, ‘I wish I could be on television’ or ‘I wish I had my own show.’ It just never happens.”
Joining her are former Defence Minister Peter Reith, singer and aspiring National Party Candidate Angry Anderson, former Commonwealth Ombudsman Allan Asher, radio shock jock Mike Smith, and model Imogen Bailey.
Broadly speaking there are three who are pro-asylum seekers and three against, but all have passionately-held opinions.
“They said ‘Are you available during these dates? Do you have a current Passport?’ and I’m like ‘F***ing hell!’ I was thrilled but I just don’t get my heart set on anything. If it happens, it happens,” she explains.
She had no idea where she would be travelling for the series, let alone which other well-known faces would be joining for the trip.
“I probably could have found out, but I really didn’t want to. I wanted the surprise. I loved watching Go Back last year and I wanted the viewers to have the same, fabulous feelings that I had. I didn’t want to find out. I wanted to be in the moment, showing my emotions, responding for real,” she says.
In the series she is paired with Reith and Anderson, both of whom are polar opposites to her own views. Deveny insists she had no qualms about travelling with the two men, knowing “it would be good telly.”
In the first of three episodes Deveny, Reith and Anderson meet Hamid, an interpreter for coalition forces in Afghanistan who fled by boat to Australia and has resettled in Melbourne. The three listen to his story before embarking on a much more treacherous and first-hand experience.
“One of the highlights for me was when I got there and I knew who I was travelling with. I learned that on the first day. Another was when we turned up at Hamid’s place in Dandenong and I could see someone in the back yard and I knew they were Afghan, and I realised we’d be going to Afghanistan, they were the two things that made me very settled. I thought ‘Ok I’m travelling with Reith and Angry and I’m going to Afghanistan,” Deveny recalls.
“Meeting a family in Indonesia was simultaneously inspiring and beautiful and gorgeous but also deeply depressing.”
Asher, Smith and Bailey also visit Somalia and Ethiopia. All six will travel to Christmas Island.
Throughout the series Deveny is seen questioning Peter Reith’s former record as part of the Howard Government, remarking that he has “blood on his hands.” The scenes create conflict set against a poignant backdrop of the Hazara, a persecuted ethnic minority in Aghanistan.
Deveny insists she was not ‘baiting’ the former politician but reacting to the moment and engaging in opinion -which is why all six were cast.
“I’m a friendly person and I work well with people so I was really friendly and worked really well with him but he’s just a right-wing misogynist. That’s not an insult, it’s just a description. I’ve worked with them before and they have three modes: they shout at you, they speak down to you or speak at you,” she says.
“I was very happy to come back and say ‘He’s a very good man who made those choices because he felt they were the best at the time’ but that was not what I found.
“He’s a very sheltered right-wing misogynist with ‘mummy issues.’
“People are asking me a lot about Reith but I think Angry and Mike Smith will be the ones that surprise most people.
“Quite a few members of the cast were very guarded, but I certainly wasn’t one of them. The DOP and Producers were fantastic so hopefully as with good shows, it will be ‘don’t TELL a show’ and you will be able to see the difference between their words and their human responses.”
The series, which is followed by a special Insight forum on Friday night, may also change people’s perceptions about the controversial Deveny who is seen shedding tears at the scenes in front of her.
“They might see another side of me, but whether it’s stand-up, writing, speaking gigs, participating in the community, those sides are always there. People see what they choose to and I think a lot of people have a vested interest in seeing any woman who speaks her mind, colours outside lines and could not give a f*** what morons think, that it helps their narrative of themselves to say ‘they’re bitter, they’re twisted, they can’t get a root, sour grapes, whatever…’” she insists.
“I loved working with the crew. I loved the travel. I loved not knowing what was going on.
“Yes it was confronting but I’m not scared of being confronted. That’s why I did it. I don’t live a sheltered life.
“I felt like I was on an incredible adventure and a massive privilege.”
Go Back To Where You Came From airs 8:30pm Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday on SBS ONE.