An interview with John Safran

Image Credit: Penguin Random House

Interview by Samuel Elliott

Since his rise to prominence via the unorthodox channel of Race Around The World, John Safran has become an authority on contemporary documentaries in his own irreverent, delightfully acerbic way. Throughout a colourful career that has now spanned some twenty years, the slightly-built, unassuming-looking Melbournian has produced and starred in a series of disparate, controversial shows that have both rankled the irascible fuddy-duddies and instilled adoration in an ever-growing legion of followers (and incorrigible imitators).

Perhaps his immense popularity could be attributed, at least in part, to his willingness to inject himself into highly volatile situations featuring an endless cavalcade of crazies and fearsome characters of dubious intent, as well as possessing an oftentimes total disregard for his own health. With such highlights as streaking through the Gaza Strip, to being exorcised in the Evangelical heartland of the U.S., it is difficult to pinpoint a single Tour De Force, though one thing can be definitely established – Safran dives into subject matter with an unchecked fearlessness seldom exhibited in his contemporaries.

Of late though, he has grown weary of the television medium where he made his bones. Since his formative Music Jamboree days and the plethora of his inimitable shows released thereafter, Safran has now established himself as an accomplished author with his previous book, the Ned Kelly award-winning, Murder In Mississippi.

With that he proved, to doubters and supporters alike, that his insatiable appetite for getting up close and personal with some of the world’s most malicious miscreants and/or misunderstood eccentrics was still very much intact. Emerging from the mosquito-ridden marshes of the deep south of the U.S. with his new book, Depends What You Mean By Extremist, Safran now sets his sights on Australian so

il – a homeland he shares with many who harbour some pretty dangerous, out-there ideas creating a nation afflicted with a pernicious zeitgeist.

Having just returned from his appearance at a sold-out event at the Sydney Writer’s Festival, the author greets me at the nearby chic watering-hole, where Australia’s who’s who of writing are congregating and daintily imbibing their libations while pressing the flesh. He arrives wearing his half-smile, offering a cheerful greeting and a squeeze of my hand as we find a nook away from the boisterous babel. For someone that strives to pass incognito and undetected into places denied him, his presence causes an excited stir among the array of journalists and literary luminaries mingling in the area.

He scratches his beard pensively for a second. His facial hair’s provenance occurred during the making of the book, grown as a bristly disguise to thwart the notice of those seeking to hinder his investigation. Gazing upon him conjures to mind Pacino’s grizzled, gravelly-voiced portrayal of Serpico. Such a comparison really isn’t much of a stretch of the imagination, considering that both Detective Serpico and the self-styled Jew Detective have produced some staggering results that have blown the lid on society’s most shameful corners.

Safran first addresses why he chose to write his new book, instead of opting for the more traditional (and seemingly easier) medium of filmed documentary making. ‘All sorts of reasons,’ he says. ‘One is that I really like that, how with a book, I can come and go as I want on my own and just kind of needle my way into places. Like rocking up at the front door of some dude whose is part of the United Patriots Front. It’s a lot easier to sell that just with a Dictaphone, than a full camera-crew already recording.’

That stands to reason, given Depends What You Mean By Extremist frequently finds the author surrounded by groups of hot-headed individuals, who, in all likelihood, sought to tear him limb-from-limb. Examining his latest work also causes the writer to reflect on his humble origins, namely how times have changed since he first started making documentaries and shows, those nostalgia-gilded, nascent days when there was still a measure of mystique to guerrilla documentary filmmaking and resources were scarce, prompting innovation to realise greatness.

‘There was a lot of energy then, because there was never enough cameras and it was sort of fresh. But now everyone has smart phones, everyone is in Syria, filming with their Smart Phones and making docos for Vice. I feel like that you have to be a ninja and figure out new clever ways to tell stories and making them more fresh.’

He expands on the serious shift in the creative process he’s found from shooting stories to now penning them. First pointing out the limitless freedom he has enjoyed with writing, compared with the cumbersome constraints inherent in the conventional documentary setting. ‘I feel like we are finding ourselves in a world where everything has to be summed up in a Tweet. And the only thing you can say into a Tweet is something really vague. Whereas my style is way more spiky and poky.’

Safran turns to the origins of the book, in what compelled him to undertake such a daunting, Herculean feat. It can be fairly classified as this, given that the very premise, that of collating the words and ideologies from dozens upon dozens of conflicting sources and infiltrating organisations that vehemently oppose such attention, render it as seemingly impossible, even for this unapologetically brazen interloper.

The author quickly reveals that his intrigue was piqued long before the now-famous (or infamous?) Reclaim Australia VS No Room For Racism rally which serves largely as the book’s epic opening. ‘It does sort of go back to growing up, when I was little and had my grandparents telling stories.’ Safran descends from Polish Jews and German Jews on his mother’s and father’s side respectively, in fact his mother, Gitl, was born in Uzbekistan while the family were fleeing the spreading Third Reich. ‘Now that I’m older and looking back it, and realising exactly what they were talking about. Nazis and their friends being killed by the Nazis. That that messed them up in the end and that they had a secret compartment in their flat where they could hide money and passports to use to escape from any future wars. So there’s that, and school life and all sorts of other things my Jewish upbringing, plus I was being really surprised at this Reclaim Australia rally by the subset of multicultural far-right supporters that sort of haven’t been covered in the media really.’

The author had gauged of a widespread issue, one that had inexplicably remained underreported by mainstream media. Thus launched the journalist gumshoe’s investigation. ‘I thought – this is weird. I knew I was onto something – there’s enough people feeling uncomfortable about it.’ With that spark of an idea roaring into a conflagration of inspiration for Depends What You Mean By Extremist, Safran found himself at the foothills of a long, arduous journey, one beset with potential saboteurs or assailants materialising at every step. Preconceived notions aside, he soon discovered that people were remarkably accommodating.

‘People have read my books and heard of me, and I found it easy to fall into conversations with them, as if somehow I’m an academic and a political activist. But it was really run on the creative instincts, the creative instinctive impulse, rather than any academic thing.’

Safran found that the work sustained itself and perpetually gained momentum through this endless procession of characters he happened across, whether through a fortunate twist of fate or through their own wilful design. Even from his preliminary delving into the maelstrom of convoluted counter-cultures, factions, counter-factions, offshoots, lone-wolf radicals, loner sects and excommunicated groups, each with their own catechism of racism or religious based ideology, word quickly got round that the author was on the case and, for good or ill, individuals or representatives of these clandestine organisations soon flocked to, and even targeted, Safran.

Although such notoriety has undoubtedly worked in favour of the final finished book, with many a hairy, perilous scene to chuckle over (or gape incredulously at) the sheer difficulties posed by faithfully covering events such as the thousands-strong rallies, including the Reclaim Australia VS No Room For Racism clash and the Cronulla Riots 10-year anniversary celebrations, among others, seemed impossible to overcome. Trapped in the thick of it, surrounded by a sea of shaved-headed drunken yobs, one must wonder how Safran could successfully navigate such a gauntlet and absorb all the details and goings-on that he found pertinent while ignoring all else.

‘So many of these kinds of things are maddeningly confusing. It’s a frigging circus on the page. So can you imagine how confusing it was in the moment. I’m often kind of lost at the time and I just make sure I’m recording and kind of have to reflect on it later.’ Safran explains his attention triage protocol. ‘You have to be Zen and accept that you’ll miss out on a lot. It is always funny to be there, with someone caught up in the madness and they give their little two-cents. I definitely want more of that for the next book.’

That said, hurling oneself into a blood-thirsty mob can be a harrowing experience for even the most seasoned and unflappable of journo types. The fight or flight instinct must flare up sometimes, even prevail in some really dicey situations.

‘Yeah, things did get a bit scary sometimes,’ the author allows with a smile. ‘And it was hard to work out sometimes if they were dangerous or not, I just had to kind of deduce if it was going to be OK, or if I was going to be getting a fist to the face. The emotional game I have to play with myself is to either not put my foot in certain situations, or use those obstacles in the book.’

Some of the obstacles the author is referring to include his infiltrating of a staunchly-secretive far-right event which, despite the hype, turned out to be a fizzer of epic proportions, arising from key figures being a no-show. The author confides he was denied meeting his Wizard Behind The Curtain, though he remained sanguine with moving forward.

‘I just had to figure out another way to explore that. So I ended up dressing up as a farmer and sneaking into this meeting in Sydney, if that other thing hadn’t happened earlier then I never would’ve gone to Sydney, and snuck into this even-bigger function and saw Angry Anderson.’

He muses over if the Rose Tattoo front-man saw through his deliberately shoddy disguise of flanno and accompanying Akubra, acknowledging that with his steady rise to a household name he has lost much of his anonymity and ability to sneak into off-limits places and events without being spotted. Safran concedes that his reputation has proven to be a double-edged sword, yet one that has opened just as many avenues for the book’s development as it has slammed shut. He recounts a key anecdote from the book whereby a photo-shopped image of himself surfaced on a far-right website, supposedly demonstrating his undying loyalty to their special brand of repugnant racism.

‘I was devastated. Not politically. But because I thought that would mean the other side wouldn’t talk to me. Like they’re going to think something different about me. But than that again turned into its own cool thing. The bad news is for my enemies – is that conflict is only ever a good thing for my work.’

Part of Safran’s appeal to the militant and zealot characters his sleuthing brings him into contact with is their perceiving of him as both a potential convert to their cause, as well as a superb springboard, through which to launch their message to the mainstream. In many respects, the author has proven himself very accommodating to their outlandish or overbearing requests, at least superficially. Which brings about the issue of if he has ever refused, or felt that it went too far.

‘Absolutely. I had to put out a million spot-fires because of that sort of stuff. If someone is representing me as supporting them, I’m really apprehensive about that. Usually it just requires a simple – shut up. You know that Barbara Streisand Effect Theory – that if you want to complain about something on the Internet then the complaining just makes it all escalate. Generally, my strategy is to not respond to things.’

The author displays a self-awareness that his life’s work has rightfully earned him some measure of leeway, or at least the public’s scepticism when unfounded and outrageous rumours about him emerge from the woodwork.

‘I think I’m in a good situation now where I’ve just done so much stuff and it’s that all over the shop. That most people know, without a doubt, that I’m not hanging out with ISIS supporters and becoming one.’

Safran has definitely acquired a journalistically-toughened hide in dealing with the tons of mud-slinging and endless vitriolic rebukes he has endured over the years, enabling him to shrug off or dismissively smile at the worst of offenders. Nevertheless, it beggars belief that anyone could remain cool, calm and collected when crossing paths with some of the more extreme individuals and their barrage of vile, hate-filled views. The author expands on his philosophy on how best to both maintain his nonchalant veneer with such blisteringly shocking remarks as well as extract the most useful, “gold”, material from his interview subjects.

‘I think in the case of the far-right being so offensive, I think it’s better in the book, and reads better, when they say something totally offensive and then I follow it up with something funny. Generally, if you’re going to hang out with neo-Nazis, you’ve got to assume that they are going to be anti-Semitic. So, I do think about the ideology and I really try to balance that by finding something funny, something contradictory about what they are spouting. So I’m always thinking about the end goal, throughout the confronting stuff.’

This brings the author to considering how edifying he has found the journey to making Depends What You Mean By Extremist has been and reflecting on the previous one with penning Murder In Mississippi.

‘I’ve learnt that there’s things that I can’t do and can do. Things I’m worse at and better at. I’ve learned that the people I interviewed created so much dialogue and I found myself curating it a bit and the interesting things they said in dialogue, to try and make it seem more real, more exciting. Whereas now I’ve realised I don’t need to do that. It’s just a case of being there, and listening to them.’

With all the individuals that the author has crossed paths with in the making of his new book, an observer must wonder who, if any, Safran considers to be truly dangerous and how many could be dismissed as reasonably harmless armchair philosophers.

‘I think that there is a distinction between the leaders and the people in the crowd. I think that the people in the crowds can be dangerous, because you know mob mentality, wanting a punch-on and that sort of thing. But, I think it’s the leaders that are much more dangerous and much more committed to the cause.’ The author cites the recent Manchester bombing tragedy as irrefutable proof that a person need not be part of a group, or exemplify a particular group’s teachings in order to be classified as highly dangerous. Surmising his findings amassed throughout the Depends What You Mean By Extremist journey with – ‘When I think of the hardest from the hard right and the hardest from the Islam side that I’ve met, then yeah, there’s some pretty serious stuff going on there.’

And, in his final reveal, Safran mentions that his next project will focus on religion. ‘Because everything I’ve done is sort of about that but there’s so much more to mine from that.’

Whatever he chooses to explore with his next endeavour, fans of the unique author (including one Louis Theroux who heaped praise on Depends What You Mean By Extremist and provided a cover quote) and the navel-gazer naysayers will have no shortage of future works to dissect, and yes, argue over. Say what you will about Safran, no one from either camp can deny that the man unites a people in the arena of argument.