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We Can Be Heroes: Finding the Australian of the Year (2005 - 2005)

6 x 30 minute episodes

Series synopsis:

We Can Be Heroes follows five nominees for the Australian of the Year Award as they wait to see who is shortlisted. Phil Olivetti is a Brisbane ex-cop declared a hero for saving nine children from an airborne jumping castle. Pat Mullins is a disabled Perth housewife-turned-sportswoman on a quest to set a record by rolling from Perth to Uluru. Sydney private school girl Ja’mie King sponsors 85 Sudanese children for World Vision and does the 40 Hour Famine every week. Melbourne PhD student Ricky Wong is a groundbreaking physicist and aspiring actor. Teenager Daniel Sims, from farm town Dunt, is about to make history by donating his eardrum to his hearing-impaired twin brother, Nathan.

All six characters are played by the series’ writer and creator, comedian Chris Lilley.

Curator’s Notes:

Update from the curator (12 June 2020):
These notes, written in 2008, do not adequately address issues of representation in this series, including the use of yellowface in the portrayal of the character Ricky Wong. The curator recommends further reading on histories of yellowface, for example Kat Chow’s Round Table: The Past and Present of ‘Yellowface’ (2014) and Jenn Fang’s Yellowface, Whitewashing and the history of White People Playing Asian Characters (2018); and further reading on Asian Australian representation on screen, for example Tseen Khoo’s Where are the Asians on Australian Screens? (2018) and Carolyn Cage’s Time for nuanced Asian representation (2020).

Original Curator’s Notes:
Chris Lilley was relatively unknown when his mockumentary series We Can Be Heroes first screened but it quickly attracted attention. Lilley had previously appeared in sketch comedy on Big Bite (2003-04) and the short-lived Hamish and Andy Show (2004) but with We Can Be Heroes and his later series Summer Heights High (2007) he came into his own.

We Can Be Heroes was Lilley’s first collaboration with producer Laura Waters, a fruitful partnership that continued with Summer Heights High. Lilley first approached Waters about creating a mockumentary because of her background in ‘straight’ documentary and current affairs television. Waters calls their subsequent production approach ‘hybrid documentary–mockumentary’. Rather than simply mimicking stylistic traits of documentary in scripting and staging, the team use documentary methods as a fundamental part of their approach to development and filming.

Lilley’s multiple characters inhabit richly detailed, realistic environments that overlay real locations with fictional detail. The storyline is scripted but action and dialogue are often improvised by Lilley and his supporting cast. The director and crew capture the action as though filming a documentary. According to Waters, this means that when it comes to filming, there are in a sense ‘two directors’ on set, with Lilley guiding the other actors through his own performance, while the director works with the camera crew.

We Can Be Heroes director Matthew Saville, who had previously directed Lilley in Big Bite, has said in an interview with journalist Nicole Brady, who herself made an appearance on the show (see clip three), ‘I was directing a documentary crew and he [Lilley] was creating a world’. The result is a funny and sometimes unsettling blend of invention and acute observation that succeeds in both injecting absurdity into familiar situations and highlighting the absurdity that was already there.

Who can be an Australian hero? This question, infused with media hyperbole and issues of cultural and individual identity, is the series’ raw material. Such subject matter can’t help but unearth an array of themes around Australian identity, hero narratives and how they are popularly represented (in politics or the media). In addition, the series screened during John Howard’s prime ministership, when what constitutes ‘Australian-ness’ was a contested issue. However, Waters and Lilley insist that they do not set out to make any particular points or political statements in their work. Indeed, We Can Be Heroes does not come across as satire or appear to take a single stance. It does, however, demonstrate Lilley’s radar for cultural and social sore points and his instinct for pushing at the boundaries often placed around them.

We Can Be Heroes was nominated for four AFI awards in 2005. In 2006 the show won Logie awards for Most Outstanding Comedy Program and the Graham Kennedy Award for Most Outstanding New Talent for Chris Lilley.

Titles in this series

We Can Be Heroes – Episode 3 2005

Mockumentary series We Can Be Heroes follows five very different nominees for the Australian of the Year award in the lead-up to the event. In this episode, former policeman bravery award recipient and wannabe motivational speaker Phil Olivetti secures his ...