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November 3, 2015

Paint me grey

After completing a documentary series that involved working in a brothel, as a logger in a Tasmanian forest and at an abortion clinic, Adelaide filmmaker Maddie Parry is questioning what society’s taboos are really for.

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  • Words: Maddie Parry

Four years ago, after the screening of my first documentary, Murder Mouth, in which I killed an animal for food for the first time, people approached me – a vegan, vindicated, forgave me because I was spreading the truth. Another, a young meat eater, was inspired to slaughter a sheep. I felt disillusioned. Was it pointless? They’d watched a film crafted to challenge them and walked out unchanged.


 Maddie’s 3 part TV series kicks off with Maddie Parry: Inside the clinic on Wednesday December 2 at 9.30pm on ABC2. It will also be available to watch on ABC iview. If you know of any other worlds worth exploring, email

But one person was crying, a meat eater, questioning her beliefs. A few weeks later two film producers told me they’d turned vegetarian. And after that, two former vegetarians said they’d been inspired to eat meat.

I don’t like making people cry, but have learnt if my films are successful they should upset both sides of the debate. And as I was told over and over again by viewers, they had questioned their beliefs because they’d watched me truly question my own.

I’ve just completed my first television series, working controversial jobs for months at a time. Over two years I tackled three difficult issues and, as in my first film, truly questioned my own beliefs. It was unsettling, but enlightening.

October 2013-March 2014 – Abortion Clinic Support Staff (Taboo 1)

At first I decided not to make a documentary about abortion; talking about it seemed inappropriate. But one in three women in Australia have an abortion… surely we should understand and discuss such a common experience?

At the clinic things were tense; the privacy of clients was the primary concern.

Each week, I’d call patients before they arrived to inform them of the documentary, that they were welcome to contribute and that they would not be filmed without their express written permission. We kept the camera restricted and things moved slowly – we’d planned six weeks, but I worked at the clinic for three months. Out of 40 people a week only one or two, and sometimes none, would speak on camera. Many said they’d like to help but were worried about the consequences, about how they would be judged.

To break down the silence, I had to work within it.

May 2014 – July 2014 – Native Forest Logger, Tasmania (Taboo 2)

Other controversial issues are not shrouded in silence, but layered with noise. In the bitter battle over Tasmania’s forests at times it feels impossible to find the truth.

I was raised an environmentalist, so joining a crew to harvest Tassie’s forest meant overcoming a lifetime of prejudice (I actually had heaps of fun). And telling a story about forestry that is entertaining and accurate is hard. Although important, describing forestry science and industry regulations can easily become boring. And I had been contracted to deliver a dramatic documentary.

The trust of my subjects, the commitment to a broadcaster, the loyalty to my audience to be accurate and genuine – Is it possible to do it all? All in under half an hour of TV? And when the stakes are raised by heated political and personal subject matter? The answer is yes, and for me the method is to be vulnerable, honest, to reveal my own ignorance and my own prejudice – that’s engaging, but it’s not easy.

October 2014 – November 2014 – Brothel Receptionist/Hostess (Taboo 3)

We want to talk about taboos – but should we?

The first time I showed up at the brothel I walked straight past it – it’s like there was an invisible moral barrier blocking my entry. But, once I broke through, sex work was, in some ways, mundane (I spent a lot of time watching Nicki Minaj and Taylor Swift music videos on the jukebox).

I wondered, ‘will my film encourage people to pay for sex?’ By revealing the everyday-ness of a legal brothel, am I knocking down that barrier for everyone else, enabling them to wander with false security into a world of complication?

I thought, ‘maybe this is forbidden for a reason’.

We like to break down taboos, believing we’re better for it. Is that true? Perhaps they protect us from ourselves, from our weaknesses. But, if they do they also endanger us by encouraging fear, prejudice and discrimination rooted in ignorance.

Just like courts re-examine old laws and update them with new knowledge, we write our own rules as a society, and we need to be sure they’re good.

If there’s anything I regret about this series it’s not going further, not being more vulnerable. Next time, I’ll burrow deeper into my prejudices and explore more thoroughly the dark edges of the everyday.

In the hidden places I worked – logging coupe, brothel and abortion clinic – it wasn’t all gloom and tension, I found warmth, humour and courage. And met people who, through their job, sit on slippery slopes, but don’t necessarily slip. They’ve carved a path, amid thousands of shades of grey, along the hillside, learning what it is to be human, and shared their insights with me. I’m grateful, and I’ve done my best – in three raw, shoestring-budget TV half hours – to share my insights with you.

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