Go Back to Where You Came From – Study Guide

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Initial considerations

Go Back to Where You Came From, directed by Ivan Mahoney, is a reality television and documentary series that focuses on the controversial issue of Australia’s asylum seekers. The premise of the show revolves around its 6 participants being able to experience a typical refugee’s journey. Throughout the series, several elements, such as the reality behind the ‘true’ refugee situation and each participant’s representation as a character, are portrayed in a particular light – one that achieve O’Mahoney’s purpose of drawing more support towards the asylum seekers’ cause. Go Back to Where You Came From is a powerful exploration of human nature as it highlights social issues that are relevant to the composer’s context as well as universal concerns such as prejudice, identity and human relationships. For this reason, Go Back to Where You Came From has undoubtedly earned its spot on the list of prescribed texts for Texts and Human Experiences.

Some significant aspects of the documentary that you should consider when discussing Go Back to Where You Came From and Texts and Human Experiences include:

  • The varying perspectives of each participant and how that reflects on their behaviours and responses to the events of the documentary
  • The impact of the documentary format
    • The specific ways in which the participants and situations are illustrated (or manipulated?) by O’Mahoney
    • Its ability to achieve the composer’s purpose to inform audiences about the complexity of being a refugee
    • The multimodal elements of the text – how did the combination of visuals and audio impact its meaning?
  • Context
    • The documentary was filmed in contemporary, multicultural Australia at the height of its asylum seeker debate

Background to Go Back to Where You Came From

Author’s context

Ivan O’Mahoney is a director, producer and writer. While he initially studied and worked as a lawyer, O’Mahoney stated, ‘I got quite frustrated with the fact that I was often representing people who were winning cases because they could afford specialised lawyers. That led me to look for the next step in my career. I went to journalism school at Columbia University. Given that I spent time in the army, I thought I was going to be a war correspondent and be in front of the camera but in the first week we were taught how to use cameras. From that moment I wanted to be behind the camera.’

After having his love and intrigue of the filmmaking process ignited, he completed his

postgraduate degree at the Columbia Journalism School and started his journalism career with CNN. Following this time, O’Mahoney spent eight years in the UK producing and directing current affairs documentaries for big channels such as Channel 4 News, BBC Current Affairs, HBO and PBS. This work earnt him a Prix Europa, Golden Nymph and Amnesty International Media Award.

In 2008, love brought O’Mahoney to Australia, where he continued to work and create films. As he became familiar with Australia’s diverse cultures, O’Mahoney’s works started shifting towards various socio-political issues. He produced for the flagship Australian current affairs show Four Corners, developed the Logie-winning SBS series Law and Disorder and produced the ABC series Great Southern Land. When not creating films, O’Mahoney delivers guest lectures at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School.

Historical context

Australia has had a long history of accepting refugees for resettlement and is one of the most multicultural countries in the world. However, in the early 2010s – when Go Back To Where You Came From was filmed and created – immigration and border protection were particularly high on the country’s political agenda. Opposition Leader at the time Tony Abbott famously vowed to ‘stop the boats’ through offshore processing. He called to begin turning back asylum seeker boats where possible. Much of the debate around this issue, especially in the public eye, centred around the confusion of who refugees and asylum seekers are, as well as the impact they have on Australian life.

Specifically, members of the public believed that the sudden influx of asylum seekers who came by boat (as many as 6 300 reached Australian shores in 2010) would:

  • Take jobs from locals
  • Receive higher welfare payments from governments
  • Push their culture’s values, traditions and practices on others, impeding on Australian culture as a result

This is the context that surrounded O’Mahoney’s desire to direct this documentary. He was responding specifically to the public confusion around the asylum seeker debate, encouraging viewers who may not have had much education on the issue to demonstrate empathy for these groups of people.

Critical response and accolades

For his work on Go Back to Where You Came From, O’Mahoney received the following awards:

  • Australian Directors’ Guild award for Best Direction in a Documentary Series (2012)
  • Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts award for Best Documentary Series (2013)
  • International Emmy Award for Best Non-Scripted Entertainment (2013)
  • Logie for Most Outstanding Factual or Documentary Program (2012)

The fact that the documentary has been critically acclaimed suggests a broader response to this text being culturally significant in not only the world of art, but in everyday people using it as a medium through which they can better understand the human condition.

Go Back to Where You Came From and Texts and Human Experiences

As with any prescribed text, we must first look to the Texts and Human Experiences rubric to understand what it really is that we are asked to do. In fact, every potential HSC examination question can come only from this rubric, so it is imperative that we study the links between Go Back to Where You Came From and the major points in the Texts and Human Experiences rubric.

Let’s look at some example questions you could receive in the HSC examination and what aspect of the rubric it most closely reflects (remember, some questions can be a combination of different elements of the rubric!). Then, we will provide examples of talking points that you could explore in regards to Go Back to Where You Came From.

Individual and collective human experiences

  • Potential question: Human experiences can be both unique and universal. How does studying your prescribed text and ONE other related text deepen your understanding of this notion?
  • Rubric statement from which the question is derived from: ‘In this common module students deepen their understanding of how texts represent individual and collective human experiences.’

The most prominent example of individual experiences in Go Back to Where You Came From is that of each of the six participants – Gleny, Adam, Raquel, Darren, Raye and Roderick. Every single participant was chosen to be part of the show because of their unique perspectives that they could bring to the debate. Whilst Gleny begins the journey already having had a strong sense of compassion for refugees, Raquel is a self-confessed ‘racist’ who is young and uneducated. It is also important to understand what techniques have been used to represent these individuals. For instance, in the first episode, Raquel is introduced walking through Blacktown. The camera retains quite a large distance from her, suggesting that audiences are meant to feel alienated from her strong opinions. Regardless, each of the participants represent a slightly different and unique element of Australian identity. Of course, you may also choose to discuss ‘individual experiences’ in terms of the individual asylum seekers that the participants and audiences meet along their journey. Scenes involving the Masudi family are particularly powerful since they make a return throughout the documentary, thereby encouraging audiences’ investment and empathy for their story. After all, the purpose of the documentary is to put a human face on the asylum seeker debate, which is often construed using statistics rather than the stories of the individuals who actually undergo this experience.

Whilst individual experiences are a central focus to the documentary, O’Mahoney speaks to various human concerns that are universal and therefore collective experiences. For example, the friendships and relationships that are formed between the participants and the people that they meet on their journey ultimately show audiences that, despite our great differences, there is always common ground to be found. In the final episode, Raquel – who is initially represented as hateful, bigoted and ignorant – even makes the statement, ‘We all have hearts.’

Various other themes in the documentary are worth considering. Ask yourself – how are they reflective of the collective human experience?

Human qualities and emotions

  • Potential question: To what extent are texts culturally significant due to their explorations of the complex emotions and qualities that define humanity?
  • Rubric statement from which the question is derived from: ‘They examine how texts represent human qualities and emotions associated with, or arising from, these experiences.’

Go Back to Where You Came From is a very emotionally charged text. The journey that the participants go through is not only physical, but also emotional. Every single participant undergoes various emotions – anguish, sympathy, joy, love for one another. Each of them, perhaps save for Gleny, even initially express some sort of hatred or apathy towards asylum seekers. In Episode 1, Raye uses profanities to describe refugees as ‘bastards’ who don’t deserve to be treated well, whereas Darren, the self-described ‘family man’ cares very little for the wellbeing of this group. However, throughout the show, the participants experience highly emotional moments. Raye states in Episode 2 that ‘if [the raid] happened to [the Chins] I’d be just distraught.’ This is accompanied by a close up of her saddened expression, emphasising her growing capacity for empathy. In the same raid scene, a mid shot of Adam is shown as he burrows his face into his hands, placing the audience’s focus on his extreme distress and conflicting feelings towards his role in the situation.

The emotional experiences of the participants therefore show an inherent quality of the human condition – the ability to empathise with the Other’s perspective. Whilst most of the participants were not initially able to do this, throughout the course of the show, they all ultimately demonstrate this ability. In fact, the capacity for change is another quality that O’Mahoney illustrates to be inherent to the human experience, which aligns with his purpose of encouraging Australians watching the documentary series to challenge their own assumptions about asylum seekers.

From this, we can gather that O’Mahoney is fully aware of the intricacies that lead humans to behave in certain ways. Furthermore, he also reveals to us that each person – no matter our initial presumptions – are capable of great emotional depth and behavioural change.

Language and form

  • Potential question: Explain the significance of form in expressing and evaluating what it means to be human in your prescribed text and ONE other text of your own choosing.
  • Rubric statement from which the question is derived from: ‘Students appreciate, explore, interpret, analyse and value the ways language is used to shape these representations in a range of texts in a variety of forms, modes and media.’

When talking about how the text helps to illuminate ideas about our humanity, the documentary’s form must be considered. In your essay, you should communicate that you understand the complexity of O’Mahoney’s representations of the human experience and that the documentary form is the perfect medium through which he can represent how complex people really are. The following sections will elaborate on the common documentary techniques used to manipulate the audience’s perceptions of the events of the show.

Archival footage

Archival film footage supposedly shows true and real images that have been recorded and not been created or staged. In Go Back to Where You Came From, the presenter, Dr David Corlett, shows clips of archival footage from various news reports in the opening montage of Episode 1, as well as the footage of the refugee boat wreck of Christmas Island. The effect of using ‘archival footage’ adds history and factual footage to an argument or point of view. This adds to the credibility, or ethos, to the documentary, and makes the audience reconsider the validity of their views on refugees. These clips include close-ups of politicians discussing the refugee issue and graphic images of destruction and terror, alerting viewers to the conflicting perspectives the community holds on this issue and make the documentary seem grounded in reality. As such, while the footage itself has not been retouched, the way in which it is presented does serve to achieve O’Mahoney’s specific purpose.


Go Back to Where You Came From uses voice-over narration as we follow the two groups through their experiences. By doing so, the audience is given insight from a voice that seemingly provides hard facts and information. This allows the audience to be manipulated into believing what the narrator says.

First-hand account/interview

A first-hand account/interview occurs when a person is asked a series of questions regarding a topic, incident or field of expertise. A first-hand account refers to a witness or observer reflecting on an experience or event. This adds weight and clarity to an argument or point of view. In Go Back to Where You Came From, both the participants and refugees are asked questions about their experiences and how these have affected them. In turn, we get a stronger sense of their individual journeys and emotions.

Expert opinions

When an expert gives their opinion or view on a specific topic or event (e.g. a medical documentary would interview various doctors, while a sporting documentary would interview past plays or coaches), it adds authenticity and knowledge to the documentary, as experts are supposedly trustworthy and believable. For instance, the host, Dr. David Corlett, states, ‘many asylum seekers who get on boats have little to no idea of exactly where they’re heading.’ Having been introduced as a ‘Melbourne academic and refugee expert’, this increases the audience’s perception of the series’ credibility, therefore emphasising just how desperate the refugees are to get to safe land. In turn, O’Mahoney’s purpose of encouraging empathy towards asylum seekers is achieved more effectively.

Camera angles and shots

Various techniques are used in the documentary to display footage and images in a particular way. The effect of this technique allows the audience to connect to the footage through various techniques and angles, as well as allowing the director to persuade the audience to share his point of view. For example, in the raid scene of Episode 2, close ups are seen of the various mothers and their children, accompanied by Gleny’s words about their plight. The focus on these innocent individuals encourages the audience to feel sympathetic towards their situation.

As you can see, talking about form and language is almost always related to the composer’s thematic concerns and purpose. Think of the form, structural features and nature of language as deliberate choices made by O’Mahoney in order to most effectively tell the story he needed to tell in this documentary. In other words, O’Mahoney explores human experiences through this medium by which he communicates with the reader.

Anomalies, paradoxes and inconsistencies

  • Potential question: Explore how texts illuminate the inconsistencies in our behaviour, and how this shapes our understanding of what it means to be human.
  • Rubric statement from which the question is derived from: ‘Students explore how texts may give insight into the anomalies, paradoxes and inconsistencies in human behaviour and motivations.’

There is an abundance of ‘anomalies, paradoxes and inconsistences’ throughout the documentary. For example:

  • The various emotions that are experienced by the participants as well as the refugees
    • Love versus hatred and anger
    • Sympathy versus indifference
  • The abundance of often-conflicting behaviours and reactions of the participants throughout the journey, showing us that growth and change are not entirely linear experiences
  • The paradox of reality – is Go Back to Where You Came From a reality television show or documentary series, or both?
    • How real is reality television, anyway?
    • Documentaries (or any other text) can never be without bias in one form or another. This is because when humans process a situation, our very psyche forces us to be influenced by our own personal experiences and opinions, no matter how subtle. This is especially prominent when discussing such a controversial issue, in which the producer’s opinion always influences the way they present their show
  • The paradox that, despite Australia’s celebration of multiculturalism, such prejudice and xenophobia continue to exist

Each of these inconsistencies are illustrated by O’Mahoney in order to achieve one overarching goal – to show that humans are often confusing and our lives do not always go as planned or as expected.

Challenging assumptions

  • Potential question: The most important texts are ones that invite the responder to see the world differently. To what extent is this true of your prescribed text and one text of your own choosing?
  • Rubric statement from which the question is derived from: ‘Students explore how texts [invite] the reader to see the world differently, to challenge assumptions, ignite new ideas or reflect personally.’

Think of what aspects of the documentary have forced you to reflect personally on your life and experience. What parts of the story surprised you the most? What made you think about, say, fear of the ‘Other’ in our modern world or the inherent capacity for empathy differently?

These are the inferred questions that the rubric, and the HSC examination question, is ultimately asking you. Some possible answers of how Go Back to Where You Came From have ‘ignited new ideas’ may be:

  • Participant’s perceptions of who refugees are and why they are coming to Australia
    • Raye’s development throughout the show encapsulates O’Mahoney’s purpose – to exercise empathy and see things from the perspective of someone who is often overlooked. In one of her final confessionals, she even adopts a bittersweet tone, saying, ‘I was a very closed-minded person and very tunnel-visioned … If it means freedom, it’’s worth it.’
  • Audience’s perceptions of the participants themselves
    • For instance, Raquel initially exclaims, ‘Why is it fair? We didn’t fucking go through this shit. We grew up in Australia,’ in which her use of profanity suggests that she is a a heartless person with no real capability for empathy or concern for anybody but herself. However, by the end of the series, Raquel is shown to have had various heartfelt moments, even being very inclusive and genuinely interested in the Masudi family’s wellbeing, forming an emotional bond with Maisara’s sister
  • The documentary confronted participants’ expectations of emotionally and physically challenging the refugee journey would be

Don’t be afraid to deconstruct this part of the syllabus beyond how the participants in the show have been challenged. It is also important to consider the documentary in the larger fabric of texts. That is, discuss how O’Mahoney is being innovative through his form and overall message. How does it affect the world of politics more broadly? Above all, you should understand that challenging readers’ assumptions is a fundamental purpose of all texts, humans need to be challenged in order to grow.

The role of storytelling in reflecting lives and cultures

  • Potential question: How do texts reflect particular lives and cultures, and what does this tell us about the relationship between storytelling and humans? In your response, make close reference to your prescribed text and one other related text.
  • Rubric statement from which the question is derived from: ‘They may also consider the role of storytelling throughout time to express and reflect particular lives and cultures.’

Obviously, Go Back to Where You Came From can serve as an educational tool for Australians. Specifically, it reveals to both participants and audiences what it is like to live as an asylum seeker. The various events in the show – the raid, meeting with the Doctors without Borders, travelling on the boat – all serve to represent key experiences of refugees. In turn, O’Mahoney showcases the power of stories. They can shape our opinions on a social or political issue, educate us, force us to confront our own bigotry or encourage us to become more empathetic and open-minded people. Although Go Back to Where You Came From certainly explores very universal themes and notions, it focuses heavily on both the Australian citizen’s experience and that of the refugees’.

Consequently, we can gather from the documentary that one of the roles of storytelling is to use engaging stories, unique personalities and novel situations to make significant commentaries about what it means to be human.

Prominent themes

Prejudice and fear of the ‘Other’

Prejudice is prevalent throughout the entire documentary. At the beginning of the show, most of the contestants hold strong prejudices against asylum seekers, largely out of a fear of the mysterious and unknown ‘Other.’ That is, they each live relatively secluded lives, sheltered from the experiences of refugees such as the ones they meet on their journey. As a result, they form misguided notions about who this ‘invading’ population are and why they are coming to Australia. Various quotes from Episode 1 elucidate us on their lack of education. For example, Darren asks, ‘[Refugees] land on a safe haven in Indonesia, so why are they then taking that boat journey to Australia?’ This is clearly contrasted by the rest of the series’ events, wherein the experiences of the refugees are shown to be drastic and stressful.

Of course, the show is not just about the participants. O’Mahoney created this series in order to shift the narrative that was widespread amongst Australians that refugees were an antagonistic group of people who aimed to disrupt Australian society. In other words, O’Mahoney is challenging our own prejudices and fear of the ‘Other,’ showing us that, ultimately, we are all human.

In considering this central theme, it may be helpful to try to make direct links back to the rubric elements. What do the participants’ reactions – as well as the audience’s assumptions about refugees – say about individual and collective experiences, paradoxes, emotions and the role of storytelling?

Perspective, culture and empathy

Another central message that O’Mahoney delivers in Go Back to Where You Came From is the power of perspective. Every single person’s beliefs, values and attitudes are influenced by a plethora of factors – their education, family, gender, race, interests and so on. After all, the ‘family man’ Darren claims he cannot forgive refugees for putting their families in danger by sending them on boats. In the same vein, Raquel holds the extreme views that she holds because, at the beginning of the show, she was a young woman who dropped out of school at the age of 14 and had never even been overseas. Yet, after being exposed to different perspectives and experiences, she begins to sympathise and understand that her situation is far more fortunate than others’. She asks in Episode 3, ‘I think people should give people a chance before they judge a book by its cover?’ While her hesitant tone still highlights her naivety, she has had her original beliefs challenged by the exposure to cultures outside of her own.

Clearly, each participants’ background and past experiences have shaped how they think. From this, we can gather that O’Mahoney is not passing judgement onto audiences for not being aware of the plight of refugees from the very beginning. Instead, he only asks that we accept the challenge to confront our views by watching the documentary series. In other words, the show serves as a lesson for us that, despite our initial reservations or differences, we should all remain open-minded enough to exercise our inherent empathy.

The power of human relationships

In contrast to the theme of the human quality of prejudice, O’Mahoney sheds light on a more wholesome part of the human experience – the power of human relationships. This can obviously be inferred by the various friendships and bonds that are formed throughout the documentary. For instance, in Episode 3, Adam and Gleny are shown to have a fair amount of curiosity towards the bomb victims, asking many genuine questions about Doctors Without Borders and its patients. Whilst Gleny has always demonstrated a strong sense of empathy, Adam’s bonds to the refugees from previous episodes – such as the Chin family (who Adam says are ‘awesome people’) – has clearly led to a shift in his originally hostile attitudes. Followed is a montage of the many victims of these Iraqi bombings, the constant extreme close-ups of the patients, appealing to both the participants’ sense of pathos, as well as the audience’s. Then, O’Mahoney cuts to a scene of the victims and the participants’ celebratory party. Combined with the high-spirited music and medium shots of the lively dancers, the power of Adam and Gleny’s relationships to the patients to create happiness are highly emphasised.

There are various other examples of humanity’s powerful bonds with one another, such as Raye’s a connection with Maisara and her sick baby in Episode 1, which is emphasised by the emotional non-diegetic music, as well as Roderick’s empathy towards’ Felix’s stories of terror and war in the same episode. All of these moments and relationships are illuminated by O’Mahoney to show us that each and every one of us, regardless of our initial reservations, have the power to find friendship and love in one another. More importantly, by doing so, we acknowledge our universal humanity and make the world a more united, tolerant place to live in.

Truth and representation

Although reality television and documentaries must retain some essence of truth, its version of what that ‘truth’ actually is can vary depending on how the director aims to portray the issue. In Go Back to Where You Came From, Mahoney exposes the participants, and, therefore, the audience, to a side of the refugee situation that is not commonly seen in popular media. However, this is done so in a way that is largely in favour of being more compassionate towards them. The premise and success of the show largely relies on the participant’s ability to challenge their notions of what the refugee experience is by spending a month in their shoes, and therefore creating a sense of both entertainment and empathy for the asylum seekers. For example, in the boat scene of Episode 1, an aerial shot of the ship during its journey is shown, surrounded by a vast sea of water. The emphasis on its isolation and, therefore, helplessness, replicates that of the refugee’s demanding experience. By doing so, the audience’s sense of pathos is appealed to, influencing their response into a more compassionate one. The narration of the scene further encourages the viewers to empathise with refugees, stating, ‘Normally, fifty or more asylum seekers would be crammed on this boat. Even with six on board, tempers soon fray.’ The dire way in which the refugee situation is represented by Mahoney consequently causes the audience to feel more empathetic towards these immigrants and affects (or, perhaps, reinforce) their opinion on the controversial issue. As a result, Mahoney’s specific representation of the refugees’ plight is done so in a way that invites a more empathetic response from his viewers.

In summary, whilst analysing this text, it is important to consider its form as a documentary and reality show hybrid. The show’s representation of the aforementioned themes is not wholly objective. Instead, it is strongly influenced by O’Mahoney’s personal views and purpose with the text. From this, we can gather that the role of storytelling can be to serve a personal political purpose, too.


Although the documentary was created in response to a specific era in Australia’s political realm, O’Mahoney’s ideas and purpose remain entirely relevant to us in its evocative depiction of universal human concerns. It is a text that you should draw your own conclusions on, project your own impressions upon and deliberate its purpose. Make a statement on what O’Mahoney’s message and intent, especially in regards to the ways in which he manipulates the viewing experience through the documentary form. After all, a significant part of the Texts and Human Experiences syllabus asks you to respond to art in a meaningful and critical way.

Go Back to Where You Came From makes for a profound Common Module selection, and it is crucial that you consider the ways in which O’Mahoney has successfully and insightfully crafted an engaging commentary on human nature, flaws and concerns.

Final tips

  • Learn to define the question in your own terms—this is what your thesis is. By defining the key phrases in the introduction, you can manipulate any given question so that it fits your plan/ideas about the text
  • Avoid writing memorised essays. It is easy to recognise when a student has done so, and markers are ultimately judging you based on how well you are able to think critically and not simply regurgitate an essay
  • Write lots and lots of practise essays. You may (and should) begin setting no timer so that you can clearly express your thoughts without timed pressure, but gradually move on to putting yourself under exam conditions so that the actual assessment will feel familiar to you. This, as well as actually writing essays out on paper and not simply on a computer, is going to make a huge difference that is relatively simple to adopt
  • Try to incorporate all of the above information and ideas into how you argue your related text—it does make up half of your essay, after all, and markers will notice when the quality of your analysis of one text is substantially worse than the other
  • It is ideal to discuss form in your essay even if the question does not ask for it. Of course, in that case, it would not have to be your primary concern, but even a sentence or two about the structural features or language used in the documentary could show the marker that you really understand the relationship between texts and human experiences
  • Don’t neglect Section I of the paper! Apply all these tips into your short answer responses. After all, both sections are worth equal marks, so you should be putting in equal effort
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