The Guardian • Issue #2045

Review (TV / Streaming)

The Swap

(SBS and SBS on demand)

Some young people are being educated in silos. They never meet people who are different. Wouldn’t it be great if a few of them could see how different people live? A more communist question would be: Why are there these cocoons in the first place? Another one is: Whose interests do the bubbles serve? The Swap is an enjoyable TV series from SBS that shows a group of kids getting out of their silos for a bit by swapping schools.

The two worlds are those of two sorts of high school education, Muslim and not-Muslim. Actually, the show involves three sorts of education, since the students making “the swap” come from a Muslim private school, a pair of Catholic private schools (boys and girls), and a state co-ed high school. What The Swap is really interested in is Muslims and non-Muslims.

The show was set up by Ali Kadhry, the CEO of the Islamic College of Brisbane (ICB).

If you’re going to watch a reality show, but have qualms about enjoying the manipulation and misogyny of things like The Bachelor, The Swap is for you. The Bachelor and its various spinoffs, are a lot of people’s guilty pleasure, but some viewers find the stupidity of the whole thing too much. Some are repelled by the cruelty of setting up ordinary people as villains.

The Bachelor, like Love Island, Bachelorette, and other reality shows use very selective editing and “emotiondrums” music to build up tension in what is really a very ordinary series of events: A young man prefers one woman over another! A young woman makes the same choice! Somebody didn’t win a cooking competition!

To save us passing out from boredom, crafty video editing and emotion drums, along with the sort of string music that goes well with James Bond jumping out of a plane with no parachute are deployed.

The Swap, on the other hand, is resolutely high-minded. Everyone is going to be respected, everyone is treated with fairness. Nobody is sexually exploited. The children in the show are about as nice as you could wish for. The narrator uses a sober and serious voice.

Still, it is a reality show. As with The Bachelor, the makers of The Swap have a vast amount of footage to choose from, and editorial choices to make. So far, the most Bachelor moment has been when one of the parents hears her Catholic-private school daughter enthusing about her buddy at the school, and the things she likes about Islam. The camera zeroes in on the mother looking concerned, and we cut away to the mother trying to explain in a non-bigoted way that she doesn’t want her daughter to go Muslim. A bit of a “here’s a villain” moment.

Accompanied by dramatic music, Khadry explains that some parents at the school don’t approve of his idea to set up The Swap. One parent on an internet forum about the school calls him “Donald Trump.” Another describes him as having an “it’s my-way-or-the-highway” attitude (which sums up a lot of CEOs I’ve known). Khadry brave, parents insular, was the takeaway there. The parents also fear racism and bigotry, which is understandable.

As the students get into it, the show gently introduces us to Sonya and Brynn from Ferny Grove Secondary School. Whimsical music plays while Brynn explains his stereotypes of Muslims – he seems to think they’re a combination of Sikhs and Islamic State.

The Muslim students have reservations too. The moment when the Muslim kids, having been gently told that the visiting kids are just other teenagers, glimpse the visitors through the window of their room, and one says, “They look so white.” As well as describing a colour, “white” has the associated meaning of “materialistic and bourgeois.” The kid who said that probably meant it in both senses of the word.

For The Swap, the elephant in the room is our class system, and education funding choices. These factors determine everything about the situation but are treated like facts of life. Nice principal Kahdry talks a lot about how he wants his students to get out of their “silos” or “cocoons.”

He kicks off the idea by describing how one of the school’s alumni, the excellent Mrs Ahmed who teaches PE and conducts discussion sessions with the kids, had trouble getting on in the world of non-Muslims when she left the school. This is trouble Mrs Ahmed would have a lot less of if Australia had a properly funded free and secular school system.

A physical thing, the Brisbane River, plays a major part too. We are told that the students never go “north of the river” and that crossing the river is a big deal. Parents who live south of the river describe how they never meet Muslims in their day to day lives. Again, that’s presented as just a fact of nature, like the river itself. It wasn’t nature who decided where to build public housing.

All of the schools participating in The Swap are part of a system that creates the “silos” Mr Kadhry wants to break down. A funding system that has been operating in Australia since the mid-1950s keeps private schools funded, and state schools struggling, so that class considerations can play a part in school choice. Apart from a feeble attempt by Julia Gillard to make the system a tad fairer, it has ratcheted up ever since.

If Kadhry really wanted to make get students out of their silos, he’d be furiously campaigning for a properly funded state school system. As private school management often does, he just wants the students to have a peek at each other’s worlds, then return to the status quo.

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