Combatting LGBTQI discrimination in Johnny Lahoud's 'Unsynced'

Fresh Blood, the ABC and Screen Australia initiative supporting up-and-coming Australian talent, is back for another season, aimed at kick-starting the careers of young creatives in Australia. The first season saw 25 creative teams deliver more than 70 short form sketches for iview, which racked up more than 900,000 views. After the success of the sketches, the 25 teams involved were asked to submit ideas for half-hour pilots. 

Combatting LGBTQI discrimination in Johnny Lahoud's 'Synchronised'

Combatting LGBTQI discrimination in Johnny Lahoud's 'Synchronised'

From the submissions 5 teams were selected to have their Fresh Blood pilots premiered on iview with the best pilot to win a series commission for 2017.

With the new season of Fresh Blood premiering this week, we took the opportunity to ask Johnny Lahoud co-creator, writer and star of one of the projects questions about Unsynced, which tells the story of a man who goes to extreme lengths to fulfil his dream of winning a gold medal in synchronized swimming and the fallout when his deception is exposed, as well as Lahoud’s experiences taking part in Fresh Blood and Militant Funktion, a production company he founded in 2014 that challenges the lack of cultural diversity in the Australian film and television industry and aims to create projects that deliver diversity in front of and behind the camera.

What inspired you to get into comedy and the creative arts?

I think it was my parents. They encouraged me to get into acting because I wasn’t really happy with what I was doing. I took a class at an acting school in Surry Hills and didn’t really think it was my thing. I remember having to pretend to be a cow or a flower, or something like that and then I walked into a Meisner school and ended up graduating there. I loved it.

You produced, wrote and acted in Unsynced. How difficult was it to manage all of that?

It was really hard to do it all and on a small budget, especially when you want to produce really quality content so the end product is really sharp. I ended up pulling a lot of favours. But it is also really rewarding. It’s nice to have people believe in you and to be honest, the ABC and Screen Australia were phenomenal. They were incredibly helpful, especially people like Nick Hayden at the ABC.

Where did you originally come up with the idea for the character of Stanley and Sally Cummings?

Stanley is like a loveable moron. He’s totally non-judgmental and totally blinded by his goal. So, I guess there is a bit of that in me? As weird as it is. I’d like to think I’m not as much of a moron as him though. My business partner and I were just brainstorming ideas. What we like is that Tonya is a really incredible woman. She did everything for Stanley but also needed to live her own life as well and in that process she realised that she wanted to be with a woman and not with a man anymore and so she went onto what she did, she was being true to herself. I guess we just wanted to write really interesting characters that hadn’t been done before and I guess we just wanted to explore.

Tell us about Militant Funktion, why did you decide to start your own production company?

So, I started Militant Films and I had made a few little, really low budget short films. At the time my friend Peter Nizic, who is now my business partner also had a company called The Function, so we just combined the two.

I guess the main focus was to bring diversity front and centre. I really wanted to break race-specific roles and racial stereotypes in my writing because as an actor I have always been stereotyped as the Lebanese character who does not really have any redeeming quality at all. I guess our main focus is for people like me or Tasneem who plays Tonya in Unsynced to play roles they wouldn’t normally be offered or have the opportunity to play. We want to write really interesting, rich roles that aren’t race specific where we’re just seen as Australians.

What was the agenda behind this mockumentary in particular?

There was an underlying subtext throughout and that was discrimination. Stanley not being allowed to compete as a man in the games was not really the focus. That was the catalyst for me to unearth the underlying message of the film. Stanley identifying himself as a synchronised swimmer from birth and being ridiculed by everyone around him was my idea of an interesting take on this kind of discrimination but what was more important was that LGBTQI group where we got to show a Transgender woman in a way that’s never been shown on Australian TV before. She was the hero of the show and we really wanted to get that across. I think she says it beautifully in her court room speech at the end of the show, where she speaks about discrimination across the board.

I’ve experienced discrimination a lot in my life, just purely from being a first generation Australian and I thought with the climate that we’re in at the moment, I really wanted to include the LGBTQI group and have them be part of a really crucial element of the show. I think Diab Metry who plays Mina did a phenomenal job. We were very cautious with the way we approached it, I ran it by a lot of my friends within the community. I wrote outlines for those scenes and asked the actors to bring in their own dialogue as well. So, I really wanted to get across the underlying theme of discrimination throughout the film. That’s what it is about.

What does it mean for you to take part in ABC’s Fresh Blood?

It was incredible, a massive honour. It’s really good to get your stuff recognised.

Would you recommend the show for up and coming comedians and would you do it again?

Would I do Fresh Blood again? Definitely. It’s wicked and if you want your stuff seen by industry professionals and people that normally wouldn’t get to see your stuff, it’s brilliant. Everyone is so helpful and really encouraging. It’s great.

Are there any future projects in the works? Or anything your production company is currently working on to look out for?

We just finished working on a short film called Falling, which is about depression and suicide, a completely different kind of film. We chose to create this because I’ve lived my entire life with depression. We will also be pitching a few new shows to some networks in early 2018, so fingers crossed they come through, however, at the moment we’ve just been working like crazy on getting Fresh Blood finished. It’s all a new experience because I come from an acting background. Now I’m having meetings with studio executives and people like that so getting my head around the whole business end of things has been a challenge, but we’ve had some really food people around us, giving us great support so we’re really happy.

The first phase of Fresh Blood premiered on ABC iview on December 4, with 60 comedic episodes from 20 teams (three episodes from each team). This is all in conjunction with the launch of ABC COMEDY.

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