Close encounters with prejudice
Gay couple Michael and Gregory and Anglican minister David. Picture: Supplied

Picture this: a happily engaged gay couple living alongside a deeply religious minister who is strongly opposed to same-sex marriage.

This is the tense, drama-filled scenario that takes place in the opening episode of the part-confronting, part-polarising documentary series Living with the Enemy. Produced by Shine Australia in conjunction with SBS, the six- part series sets out to explore some of the most hotly debated topics in modern Australia by pairing up groups of participants with conflicting views.

For 10 days, the opposing groups live with each other with the sole aim to experience a lifestyle that contradicts their own. The reactions range from emotional and explosive to confronting, eye-opening and, in some cases, heart-warming.

Executive producer Tim Toni is hoping for a similar reception from viewers, even if it prompts people to question their own views.

"I think the program is designed to try and make you pick a side," explains Toni, who also worked on Big Brother when it first launched in Australia.

"What I would hope is for people to yell at the telly; I want people to get angry and in some instances I wouldn't mind if people changed their minds.

"But I certainly would like them to question their position and to create an emotional response is about as good as it gets for a documentary maker."

Sure to be another conversation-starter, Living with the Enemy echoes the bigoted undertones seen in SBS's documentary series Go Back to Where You Came From, which proved a big ratings hit and went on to win a string of awards, including an International Emmy.

Same-sex marriage spearheads the first episode and follows soon-to-be-married gay couple Michael and Gregory, and straitlaced Anglican minister David. Kicking off at David's home, it is only minutes after the trio have met that he lays down the law, telling the couple they must sleep in a caravan parked on his driveway so their "abnormal" relationship is not paraded in front of his children.

Although outraged, Michael and Gregory stick to David's rules and over the next five days they shadow him as he goes about his daily business, including attending a sermon condemning gay marriage.

On the flipside, when David arrives at the couple's home he is given a warm welcome and led to a cosy bedroom, albeit adorned with pictures of half-naked men.

As part of David's five- day stint with Michael and Gregory, he is invited to attend their New Zealand wedding and is asked to walk in a gay pride march.

"It's very easy to have those opinions in private but (David) had the heart to go on the telly and do it with a smile," Toni says. "I ended up quite liking him, to be frank."

Immigration, gun ownership and the decriminalisation of marijuana are among other hot topics explored in the series.

"We looked at immigration and skin colour with African migrants in Melbourne, where there have been big issues with some pretty horrendous statistics damning the community," Toni says.

"Then we set out to do the legalisation of marijuana as one of our lighter episodes because the rest of it was very heavy stuff, and then we did hunting because it's an issue that is about to break in Australia."

In one episode, Toni says he was spurred to revisit the controversial asylum-seeker debate that had set the tone of Go Back to Where You Came From.

"Because SBS had so comprehensively done the boats in the past with its two seasons of Go Back to Where You Came From, we wanted to look at the next step in an asylum seeker's journey in Australia, which is detention," he explains.

"So we actually had an asylum seeker who arrived here on the first boats and was involved in the burning down of Port Hedland and the Woomera breakout. So he was the kind of poster child for the opponents of people against the boats, essentially."

Toni says casting for each episode was a painstaking process but was necessary to find suitable subjects who were open to experiencing change.

"We set about finding not necessarily the most vocal or most hard-minded but those who were able to hold their own in an argument and not be scared on taking a backward step on the telly, which people try to control when the cameras are present," he explains.

"And then we wanted people who at least had the capacity to understand the other side of the argument.

"By putting so much effort into the casting, we knew we'd get explosive content from certain couplings and we definitely did. There's no greater truism than the making of documentary programs where you get the casting right."

The West Australian

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