Arts & Entertainment

Sydney’s Loving Interpretation of Eurovision

Dweeb City (Sydneyvision winners 2016) Photo: Diana Shypula at Prema Photo.

BY RITA BRATOVICH

For clarification: Eurovision is a broadcasting network owned by the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) which is an affiliation of networks across Europe and the world. The Eurovision Song Contest is run by Eurovision/EBU and participation is open to members of the EBU. Australia’s SBS TV Network is an associate of EBU which is why we have been included in the contest (with a slight flexing of rules).

The bigger question is why do we care about Eurovision?

“Australia has always had gay people and we’ve always had immigrants…it makes sense that Eurovision is big here,” is an explanation offered by Bina Bhattacharya, a local film maker who has made a short film, Wild Dances, which is based on a story a friend once shared.

He was a closeted gay boy in a rural, Catholic high school in Taralga, just outside Goulburn. At his school dance he convinced the DJ to play “Wild Dances”, the Ukrainian song that had just won Euorvision (2004). When he was joined on the dance floor by a Ukrainian girl in his year, they danced shamelessly and became – and remain – firm friends.

Ukraine won again last year and the contest is being held in Kyiv this year, making the Ukrainian theme to the film even more relevant. Bhattacharya cites even more reasons:

“There was something very specific about Ukrainians and how hungry they are to promote their language and culture because of the direct threat of Russian aggression at the moment.”

The Ukrainian community in Australia – as with many ethnic communities – hold tight to their roots and celebrate the wins of their home country. For many people Eurovision holds the same currency as World Cup Soccer.

“Every Ukrainian could remember where they were standing and what they were wearing when Ruslana won,” says Bhattacharya.

To get her film made, Bhattacharya needed to get approval from the EBU to use their brand and clips from the broadcast. They were extremely interested in the project.

“They love Australia’s enthusiasm for Eurovision and they think it’s really good for their brand,” says Bhattacharya, who gushes when she describes her approval email bearing the signature of Jon Ola Sand, the EBU representative.

She hopes to show the film at festivals and online.

Paul Karen was involved with Wild Dances and is a member of the Ukrainian community. When Ukraine won in 2004, he was initially pissed off because his sister had texted the news prior to the telecast. But the ire gave way to patriotism:

“A sense of pride rippled throughout the Ukrainian hromada (community) as a result of Ruslana’s win,” he says.

Karen is not at all surprised by Australia’s love of Eurovision.

“It reminds me of Australian’s enthusiastically embracing ABBA in the 1970s and again in the 1990s,” he says, adding “Australians, as a rule, are always ready and brave to accept and to try new things.”

That said, for a long time he believed only a very small minority even knew what Eurovision was. So he was surprised when he once offhandedly mentioned he was going to watch it to a work colleague and the middle-aged, Anglo-Saxon woman replied ‘Oh my God. You too?!’

“We became firm Eurotrash comrades from then on,” says Karen.

So with this growing popularity does he feel it will sell out and become mainstream?

“Never! There will always be the white pants, sequins and wind machines that will never be in style.”

In what must be considered inevitable, the Eurovision fever has led to appropriation in a localised event called Sydneyvision. Organised by the Newtown Neighbourhood Centre this is a song contest where entrants are asked to write and film a performance of a song based on their suburb. Ken Saunders, founder of Sydneyvision, explains that the idea ensued from a conversation in a cafe.

“We thought Sydney with its 500 plus suburbs was more than able to outdo the 50 odd countries of Europe.”

The concept was a hit from the start and continues to be popular. Songs submitted represent all styles, genres and subjects, with the only provision being they must reference their local suburb. There are of course, Eurovision parodies…and then some that are just strange.

“Last year’s winners had an all-alien band landing at Luna Park, stop-action Beatles figurines wandering through Glebe and an inspired animation about Newtown grumbling about housing un-affordability and the length of the lines at the Marley Bar…Australia is possibly the best place to be for Eurovision. We understand the celebration of absurdity.”

Saunders does feel concerned that more and more Eurovision songs are being sung in English and that songs are becoming highly produced and homogenous.

“No worries along that line for Sydneyvision though,” he reassures.  “Our pool of wildly enthusiastic amateur and semi-professional entries and their ingenious use of meagre resources will keep Sydneyvision fresh.”

Eurovision screening parties are probably the most common way for people to share their fandom. Mark Jones of Gay4Play has been holding screening events for 11 years and has watched popularity grow. Eurovision holds special significance for the LGBTQI community, and the contest itself has seen some extraordinary shows of diversity.

“I don’t know if the LGBTQI community has helped get those performers there but I definitely think the community has helped shape the contest you see today,” says Jones. He cites the defiant show of rainbow flags during Russia’s performance several years ago after its government had made particularly homophobic statements.

Sydney has a very large LGBTQI population and that manifests in the number of Eurovision events in Darlinghurst alone – and Australia’s inclusion in the contest has accelerated the enthusiasm. This year’s theme “Celebrate Diversity” speaks directly to the community.

“Everyone is welcome at our Eurovision party not just LGBTQI …It’s about diversity…” says Jones. The night raises funds for ACON.

Arguably, if not for SBS, Australians might never have known about Eurovision. “Communities across Australia have been watching The Eurovision Song Contest on SBS for more than 30 years, and we continue to see interest and audiences grow,”  says a spokesperson for the network.

It was first broadcast in 1983. Australia’s interest and participation increased with a customised presentation of the event. Then in 2014, Jessica Mauboy was invited as a guest performer, Guy Sebastian a wild card entrant in 2015, and Dami Im an entrant in 2016 and achieving 2nd place. This year’s entry is Isaiah Firebrace with It Don’t Come Easy.

So what would happen if Australia actually won and what would it mean for SBS?

“It would be amazing if Australia were to win and if we did we would then announce our plans, noting that contest rules stipulate it must be held in Europe,” said the spokesperson.

“The theme for Eurovision this year is ‘Celebrate Diversity’, and it is a global event that is closely aligned with SBS’s own purpose and values.”

Wild Dances: www.facebook.com/wilddancesfilm/

Sydneyvision Contest: www.newtowncentre.org/sydneyvision-song-contest.html

Eurovision – May 14, 5:30pm. Hello Kyiv this is Sydney calling, Oxford Art Factory. Info: www.g4p.com.au

SBS broadcast: May 10-14, Various times, check local listings. Info: www.sbs.com.au

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