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Making online connections human again

Debunking the myth of online safety with the creators and writers of SBS’s latest drama The Hunting

Ying-Di Yin

Watching Sophie Hyde and Matthew Cormack’s four-part Australian drama series The Hunting will make you miss the days of owning a Nokia flip phone, where the only real entertainment was playing Snake or waiting ten minutes to hook up to the internet only to have to disconnect so your parents could make a phone call. 

Fast forward to 2019: in The Hunting, your real and online life are intrinsically connected. Four teenagers’ lives unravel when a nude photo is shared online without consent, creating a ripple effect for the students and families, and sparking important conversations around the prevalent modern themes of online privacy, sexuality, the #MeToo movement and toxic masculinity.

Ahead of Antidote festival’s vital conversation around Dark Data with whistleblower Chris Wylie, the urgency to question data rights being fundamental has never been more relevant. Hyde and Cormack want to dispel the panic around online safety and offer a new viewpoint: how can we humanise the actions surrounding online consent and privacy? 

Ying-Di Yin: How did this concept become a reality?

Sophie Hyde: SBS actually came to us as a company [Closer Productions] and asked, have you got a show that will spark a conversation? That inspired us to think about things that were going on at the time, and things that we cared about that we felt weren’t getting as much airplay. 

There were a bunch of different instances where kids were sharing images of their friends and peers online. It was indicating that there was a real problem among young people, about power and consent because those images in general, the ones that we were interested in, were not really shared with sexual gratification in mind, but were being shared with a sense of wanting control and power over other people. 

It’s exciting for young people, but also terrifying at the same time to explore sexuality online. How does The Hunting explore this navigation in the online world? Is there an answer of what to do, or what not to do?

SH: We’re not just interested in online safety. What we’re more interested in is talking to the people who may have an image that they have through consent and the fact that they have a choice about what to do with that image. 

There’s a conversation that’s lacking: don’t share that image if someone gives you an image. If you don’t have consent to share that with your friends, you don’t have consent to put it online. 

I think we’re constantly talking as though we can protect ourselves and actually, what we need to be talking about is trust and looking out for each other. 

When we go into this place of, how do we keep ourselves and our kids safe online?, it’s like saying, how do we protect our girls from walking down the street and not being raped and murdered? It’s really hard when we’ve been living our whole lives in ways that are trying to protect ourselves from that, and it doesn’t protect us. We fail to have that conversation with the people who have the ability to share or not share that image.

High school student Amandip (Kavitha Anandasivam) discovers a nude image of her is being shared online. Image: SBS

Matthew Cormack: It comes down to panic. The law is used to control the conversation around what is actually happening. As we were developing the show, the Harvey Weinstein exposé happened and the #MeToo movement began, and there was a conversation around what it means for the show to be set in 2016. Should we set it now? Is the conversation different? 

With image-based abuse, the conversation in essence had not changed or shifted, so we set it in the now. 

SH: In our research it’s very clear that there’s a large, large number of young people engaging in intimate experiences through technology. There are many reasons for it, some of which are just like, I don’t feel ready to touch another person. And some are like, I don’t want to get STIs.  A generation that grew up sharing images as their primary form of communication is not going to turn that off when it comes to sex and relationships. 

Just telling people not to share images is like abstinence training. It doesn’t work. 

We found in the early stages of this research that the problem was much bigger and deeper than that: there was a sense of ownership that people had over other people’s images and their bodies and a feeling that they were entitled to them. That was disturbing. 

Nick (Richard Roxburgh) with son Andy (Alex Cusack) in SBS's 'The Hunting'. Image: SBS

The series deals with the harms of young characters who are from diverse backgrounds. Why did you choose this? Do different cultures have different views on privacy?

SH: When we first were looking at this, there was a sense that it was a “white problem”. But what happens in the media is that there’s often a white girl in the photos. When there are cases like this, it provokes that panic response, oh, look out for innocent girls. What does this mean for kids that come from backgrounds that have different responses?

We had originally written Nassim’s family to be Iranian, but then both of the actors that we wanted for these roles were of Lebanese background. It would be crazy for us not to make some changes, think through how this story might play out in this family if they’re Lebanese.

MC: We’re white, the majority of the creative team are white, and the teenage characters were the most important characters for us, especially in terms of casting. There was always the idea that once we got to casting their cultural background, that would cement the characters. It was a bit in-between – we have this show on the page and initially we just took from connections that we already had with people in Adelaide communities. But once it was casting time, we started to solidify more specific ideas about the family and their responses to these subjects.

There’s a line from the Netflix doco The Great Hack that features Antidote speaker and whistleblower Christopher Wylie that I wanted to ask if you agree with: should data rights be considered a fundamental right?

SH: It’s probably the only way to make a statement to the world that’s the opposite of what we say all the time: don’t put it down electronically if you don’t want it to be shared. We can’t have that world. I don’t think you can concede.

That’s where the law has a part to play, that reflects the kind of world that we want to see. The values we want to live by. Does that mean that things will never get shared? No, but it means that the problem and the shame will exist with the person who shares them, rather than the person who’s been shared. Is that idealistic? Probably.

Zoe and Dip from SBS's 'The Hunting'. Image: Nat Rogers

The character of Ray [high school teacher] represents a complex struggle today. In the show he’s in a position of power, he’s an educator and he supports the ideas that stem from the #MeToo movement. Does he have the right to be an authority for the #MeToo movement? How do you move through this in the show to represent a male’s role in the movement?

SH: We were looking at different responses from two people [Eliza, Vice Principal and Ray] that really cared about their students and wanted to do best by them. We wanted to explore what it was like to actually be there having to deal with the day-to-day, and show they were connecting with their students and in it for the right reasons, and not having panic responses

Ray is a guy who felt very modern and would even call himself a feminist, but still has all these emotional responses to not knowing how to behave all of a sudden in a world where men are being called to account or to be considering their actions – possibly for the first time in history today.

MC: He’s a man struggling, in some respects, in the #MeToo movement. And his conception of his identity is quite fragile.

SH: We also wanted to show Ray respecting the woman opposite him, Eliza, has been considering how she behaves her whole life, in a way that’s just being asked of him.

What would you like viewers to take away from this series? 

SH: It’s different for different people. It’s the idea of speaking with some sort of vulnerability to your kids about what relationships and sex might be. And that it’s actually okay to have conversations with them and not having that conversation is causing a lot of problems. 

MC: A call to action to people to watch the show and to come away with the idea that everyone is entangled in this. And yes, that any real solution is to have frank conversations.

SH: To not be put off by talking about technology and not knowing what different apps are. That actually you’re just talking about feelings.

Humanizing technology, almost. 

SH: Yeah. If we can’t reveal to our children how we feel about our own relationships, how do they know how to feel about theirs? With organizations like Project Rockit and In Your Skin, there are people going into schools doing these things that are real. 

Stream the full series now on SBS On Demand

To support The Hunting, SBS in partnership with the eSafety Commissioner, has created learning materials for families and teachers around cyberbullying and image sharing – available at sbs.com.au/learn/the-hunting

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