Asking For It Director Tosca Looby Talks About Inspiring Change in Australia in This Interview

This interview contains discussions of domestic violence, sexual assault, and trauma.

Director Tosca Looby’s work over the past few years has held a microscope up to misogyny in Australian politics with Strong Female Lead, dismantled domestic violence with See What You Made Me Do, and even took a look at dancing spiders with Magical Land of Oz. With her latest series, Asking for It, Tosca holds a microscope up to the contemporary sexual revolution that is taking place around the world, ushering in an era of ‘enthusiastic consent’ at a time when millions of Australians are living within an epidemic of sexual violence.

Asking for It was made in collaboration with journalist Jess Hill, who previously worked with Tosca on See What You Made Me Do, and is available to watch on SBS On Demand. It is challenging viewing, but it is enriching and transformative too. The stories you will hear within the series come from survivors of sexual assault, many who are sharing their stories for the first time. It also provides an in depth look at the way that consent education is being rolled out across schools in Australia.

The manner that sex, consent, and sexual assault is discussed in Asking For It is open and delivered in a safe manner. It’s a far cry from the discussions that I heard and the education I received in the nineties when all we were told about sex was how to put a condom on a banana. This is the kind of series that teenagers growing up need to see. But, it’s not just a show for teens: it’s a show for people of all ages, because consent is not just a teen-focused issue.

As with See What You Made Me Do, Asking For It presents a path to a better culture within Australia. One were the way we communicate with one another about consent is clearer and delivered in a safer, more considerate manner.

In this interview, recorded after the launch of Asking For It, Tosca Looby talks about how she crafted the series with her collaborators, how she managed to ensure that the crew and interview subjects were given support during and after filming, and changing Australian society on screen.

This interview has been edited for condensing purposes.

Asking For It is available to view on SBS On Demand now.

You’ve swapped between both traditional documentary storytelling and archival storytelling, and with Asking for It, you’re blending the two styles of storytelling together in some capacity. I’m curious about that push and pull of dipping into the archives, while also using captured footage. How do you find that balance of what you’re putting on screen?

Tosca Looby: The archive process for Asking for It is very different. It’s more that we kind of create the storyline and the thesis that we’re going to follow, and then we have to work out ways to illustrate it. Whereas a project like Strong Female Lead, it is the archive that’s going to determine where you can go. In Asking for It, it is very much a secondary process to find that archive, and in a project like that, I’m pretty confident that out there is something that will work. We were also using what we’d already learned about what was in, for example, the National Film and Sound Archives (NFSA), and we knew that there was stuff there that would work again for this storytelling. It is that experience of having delved into archives and knowing where stuff is and where you’ll find the gold that you keep taking with you into each new project.

Do you keep a mental note of ‘I saw this, this might be useful in a future project’? There is a moment here where you have archival footage of people who are talking about having engaged in horrendous assaults. I can’t imagine that any perpetrator, in a modern context, would be wanting to openly discuss their actions, so you have to step into the archives to explore those stories. Was that something you had seen before and thought, “I can apply that here?”

TL: I actually hadn’t seen that before. That was something that we found specifically for Asking for It. Every now and again, you’ll find a bit of gold like that that is so unique. You’re right, it’s so hard to get people to talk like that, and suddenly, here were these men speaking so candidly about their own experiences and why they did it. It was chilling, especially listening to the extended versions. There was a vision board as well, and you jump through all these hoops, can you use it or can you not use it? By the time I see something like that, I don’t want to give it up. The legality of that series and clearing everything was so complicated. There was stuff we had to give up that we just couldn’t use, so it was great to get that particular snippet across the line.

Tosca Looby
Tosca Looby

That legal process has got to also match up with the ethical process too. The question of “Can I legally use it?” leads into the question of, “Can you ethically use it?” How do you marry the two together when you’re approaching those kinds of stories on screen?

TL: The legal questions and the ethical questions are there every day in every decision for a series like this. Beyond the fact that of course, as a filmmaker, just for your own sense of accreditation, you don’t want to mess with that duty of care that you have to everybody. It’s always my biggest fear that I will have made a mistake that impinges on somebody in a negative way. So, we are constantly asking for legal advice on everything, but also considering, ‘okay, if we do use this, what else do we need to do?’ We distort their voices. We don’t use the vision so that they are never identifiable. We look at the timelines and when these men spoke, and where they are now. There are so many decisions that need to be made, that are not just creative decisions. In some ways, the creative decision just sits alongside these other decisions, and is informed by them. This series, probably even more than See What You Made Me Do, which was our series about domestic abuse, felt like you really were carrying people very tentatively in your hands, because to talk about rape, there’s no sidestepping what you’re talking about. You can’t talk metaphorically; it is what it is. It really exposes someone to talk about it. They’re not things I knew before I started this series. That’s what we discovered as we went along.

A lot of the conversations and their subjects presented are extremely traumatic for the people who are retelling them, and we can hear in their voices the difficulty of reliving those moments. I’m curious about the support that you have for people who are presenting those stories, but additionally, those who are working on the series, and might experience vicarious trauma. What kind of support took place behind the scenes?

TL: To start with the team, it’s really important that we talk among ourselves, and we’ve really learned to do that. You’re kind of unpacking all the time what it is that you’re doing. We all work together in one room, so that you can finish a call and turn around and say, “I just got told this story.” It is that kind of constant sharing so that you never holding anything just to yourself, which I think is really hard in this process.

The other thing is we have – this is about the team as well as the participants –, we have a psychologist who works across the series, and she comes in at the very beginning and talks to us about vicarious trauma. She talks to us about sympathy versus empathy, and about the relationships that you form with these people and the healthiest way to do that for yourself and for them. It’s really interesting information that we’ve learned from her that, and that’s really helped the team. Then she also works with participants.

To begin with, when I first talk to a participant or other people in the team do, we do try and talk them out of it. We give them every possible opportunity to walk away, because the last thing that you want is for someone to not be so sure about it and get three quarters of the way into the process and decide that actually, this was not a great idea. You’re forever taking them to that end step and saying, “Alright, think about it going to air. How are you going to feel when you’re telling your story and your family and your friends, and everyone is going to see that?” A lot of people do step away, and that is the right thing.

If it seems that they’re coming with us on the ride, then our psychologist gets in touch, and she has a completely separate conversation with them. She lets them know that she will report back to me, so that I have a lot of information that they might not want to talk to me about, but they know that I’ve got it, and it can inform, for example, how we do the interview, or who they want there; those kind of practical decisions through to, here’s the bit of the interview they’re worried about, and they’re worried that they might not cope with telling that bit, so I can be careful around that. Then she talks to them again afterwards, and then again when the series is going to air, so she kind of accompanies them along the way, and is able to let us know where people are kind of feeling a bit wobbly.

That’s been a really good process. We’ve [worked] with her across quite a few things now, and it’s great for me to have that backup. It’s almost just a relief that she can talk to someone and she is trained to do it. That’s been a great system.

You’ve worked in nature documentaries prior to these series. If you went back into that area, what would you apply to that kind of story from what you’ve learned on these series?

TL: It’s funny, people say, “Maybe you need to take a break from all this stuff and go back to natural history.” It’s like, natural history is not a comforting place to go these days as a filmmaker, especially for me as an absolutely tragic animal lover. I love that individual animal that we’re working with, and I want to know what happens to it and to keep following up its story. From a personal point of view, you have to be really aware of what is going to trigger you about that process. There are some stories I just don’t think I’ve got the stomach to tell, which I know seems weird when you think we’ve done some really hard human storytelling. I feel like in terms of natural history, we have to find ways that we can tell those stories and get through to the other side and do great storytelling in the process that is worth watching. I guess that all those kind of hard subjects are intertwined.

Prior to my current career, I was a vet nurse for eight years, and I would talk to human nurses who would say, “I couldn’t do what you do,” and I would say to them, “I could couldn’t do what you do.” We have compassion, we have empathy, but it’s knowing what we can offer from ourselves in a situation and knowing what our limits are, which can be difficult. When you tell these kinds of stories, is there a level of selflessness that you take on board when you’re telling these stories? How do you know or find your limit when you tell them? Is it a matter of saying, ‘This is about the message or the survivors story?’

TL: I think I’ve been pretty good at that. I haven’t suffered domestic abuse, so that makes it much easier [when] you feel that distance from it, even though I would hope that that’s not reflected in what you make. Personally, when you work on a subject for a year, I think if you can maintain some kind of personal distance, then that’s healthy.

This one was much harder because it affects everyone. Everyone, in some way, has to engage with the issue of consent. Everyone knows someone who’s been sexually assaulted. You’re conscious that just when you look at the numbers [of survivors], you must know a lot of people who have assaulted other people. A lot of a lot of men I spoke to while I was doing this said, “When I think back to when I was in my early 20s, and the things that I did, that wasn’t quite consent.” There were a lot of conversations like that, that were very personal for people. You realise how incredibly grey this subject that it’s not in any way easy to understand. It’s not about good and evil. I think that was a really hard subject to separate yourself from.

When it comes back to animals, it’s really interesting that you’re a vet nurse, because a friend of mine was a vet nurse, and he used to tell me stories that I would think, “Well, I could never be a vet nurse.” I feel an incredible responsibility to animals, and what humans do to them. I feel like I need to do my best to do what I can, which is tiny, and that becomes very personal.

The work that you’ve been doing lately looks at structural issues in society, and they’re related to issues that are often gendered. What draws you to wanting to explore those issues? Is it the knowledge that by presenting these stories, they might nudge of society in the direction to be better in having these kinds of difficult conversations?

TL: I grew up in a family where social justice was something we all talked about a lot. Reading Noam Chomsky in my 20s, and his concept that you can chip away, you can’t feel a helplessness, you can do your tiny little bit, that’s always inspired me to feel that there is work you can do in television that can be transformative. We have seen it with these projects, which is pretty amazing.

For example, with See What You Made Me Do, we got feedback from people that really made me think, “Well, that was all absolutely worth it.” A lot of people contacted us saying, “I suddenly saw behaviours that I instinctively knew were wrong, but I couldn’t name or recognise or understand where they were going. But I’ve managed to now recognise that, and I am much safer now.” Or, “I’ve helped a friend or a family member.”

I remember we got this message from this guy in his 80s, and it was the most amazing letter I’ve ever received, where he said, “I hadn’t meant to watch your series. My wife was sitting watching it, and I just happened to walk past the television, so I sat down, and it was like these curtains opened on my childhood. My mother left when my brother and I were tiny, and I never understood why. And as I watched your programme, I realised that my father was coercively controlling her and that to make herself safe, she had to get out. That’s what she had to do. And she knew we were safe. But she was never going to be safe there. I feel like it’s taken me all this time to be able to forgive her for that.” I thought, well, that’s not what I expected, but [it is] great.

With Strong Female Lead, a lot of people who’ve been part of the teal movement have got in contact and said, “That really inspired me to run, and it inspired me to keep going when the campaign got hard.” That feels pretty good to think, “This film could have played its part in really changing the culture of Parliament.” Suddenly this incredible group of women as independents are going into that Parliament, which is pretty exciting.

Asking for It has been out in the world for some time now, and I’m curious if you’ve had any reactions to the series that have been a bit similar to that story that you just told?

TL: They’re starting to come in now. It takes a while. A series like this is not one that people binge. Strangely enough, people did binge See What You Made Me Do, which took us an SBS by surprise. I think this one is an even harder one to watch, but I think people who stick with it are pleasantly surprised that by episode three, there’s a bit of a laugh, and it does carry them through to an optimistic place at the end of ep three.

People are starting to get in contact saying, “I watched this with my teenagers, and we were able to have conversations that we haven’t had before.” I’m really hoping that this series will have a long educational tail on it. I know that I as a parent, this is the springboard that I can give my kids to have those conversations that they definitely don’t want to have with me, but we need to have. I think it’s a great tool, in that sense. I hope that it extends to generations beyond that. I’ve had responses, for example, from my mother saying, “I don’t think this is for my age group.”

Consent applies to all age groups.

TL: That’s what I told her.

As you’re saying, there’s a lighter aspect to episode three. In an editorial capacity, how do you decide the flow of taking people into the heavier and darker moments, and knowing that there’s going possibly be an ad break coming up at this point that’s going to give people a break? Does that come into your creative choice of how you’re structuring an episode?

TL: It’s interesting, isn’t it, because in some ways, I kind of resent SBS ad breaks, because when you’re in the thick of it, you think I don’t want to have to take people out of that moment and have them go and make a cup of tea and not come back in time. But on the other hand, I think for a series like this, those breaks are important. It’s building a reason for them to come back to it.

As a viewing population at the moment, we’re not necessarily very brave. We want to watch, on mass, Farmer Wants a Wife. We want stuff that is going to make us laugh and is heartwarming, or whatever it is that brings people to that show. I am forever grappling with how I get people to come to a series like this, when their natural inclination at the end of a long day is not to challenge themselves. There are all sorts of decisions built into that, and Jess is one of them.

I feel like Jess holds people’s hands and takes them with her, and that is an incredibly important tool to know when she needs to come in and take their hand again. It’s even visual relief that I’m trying to work in all the time so that the music and the vision is just letting you have a bit of a break and allowing you to kind of take a breath and come out of it and then be brave enough to keep heading on with us. People do it in literature as well. I get that it’s what we all do across so many subjects, but this particular series challenged all of that most of all, more than See What You Made Me Do.

With See What You Made Me Do, I thought no one’s ever going to watch this. Then when we came up with consent, I thought, “Okay, this to me is much easier because the word consent sanitises what you’re really talking about.” It even did that for us. It’s weird that you don’t immediately think, “Okay, what’s the corollary of consent?” It’s rape. The first screening we did for SBS, we kind of just got stuck right in there, and the poor commissioning editor turned to me and said, “Oh my God. Is this just all going to be about rape?” I thought, “Well, there’s mistake number one.” We’ve got to ease people in much better than that and signpost them into this whole idea of ‘what is consent?’ that we all seem to grapple with? Why don’t we understand it? What are our social cues that are so confusing and our personal experiences that seem to sully it? They’re the lessons you learn as you put something together.

It’s interesting that even though we’ve been doing this for so long, and Rachel and I especially have been in the edit together over so many things, each project feels like you’re learning all over again. There are so many lessons that you learn along the way that, at the end, you wish you knew at the start.

We’ve gone this far and I haven’t asked you about the collaborative relationship with Jess. As you’re saying, there is that comfort of having her there on screen creating this sense of ‘we’re in this together, I’m going to hold your hand in some capacity. You’re not alone. This is a conversation, it’s not a lecture.’ What’s that collaborative experience with Jess like and what discussions did you have prior to and during shooting?

TL: Jess is very different to a lot of presenters that I’ve worked with in that she is so embedded in the material, and she’s so smart about the subject matter and has good instincts. For this one, she came on when we were first working out what stories we’d follow. We’d start thrashing out what subjects we’d look at. She had just written a Quarterly essay about the #MeToo movement, which isn’t quite where we were going, but it was certainly stepping on very similar territory, and because of her background, she had so many ideas, but also she has such goodwill in the community and people want to work with her. She’s a bit of a superstar in this territory, so that is such an advantage.

From a director’s point of view, she’s got a beautiful, natural presence in front of the camera. She’s certainly no Prima Donna. She’s there getting really involved in the subject matter, and that’s just such a gift. We would go to do a piece to camera, and sometimes to the frustration of the crew, we’d spend half an hour really talking through the words and why we’re going to frame it like this, and then we’d do it and then rewrite it, and that is very collaborative. Her input is always fantastic. Also, she’s very aware of triggers in the community and words that we probably shouldn’t use and better ways to frame things that victim and survivors over the last few years have put a lot of energy into reframing. It’s been great working with her.

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Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian film and culture. He is the co-chair of the Australian Film Critics Association, a Golden Globes voter, and the author of two books on Australian film, The Australian Film Yearbook - 2021 Edition, and Lonely Spirits and the King. You can find him online trying to enlist people into the cult of Mac and Me.

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