Culture

This Documentary About Iconic Melbourne Social Worker Les Twentyman Is ‘Struggle Street’ Done Right

"If you're not part of the solution then you're definitely part of the problem. Communities and societies fall apart when good people do nothing."

Earlier this year, SBS documentary miniseries Struggle Street aired to great attention and not a small amount of controversy. The doco was praised for its unflinching look at the lives of people on society’s fringes, while attracting heavy criticism for what its detractors saw as its sensationalist marketing, heavy-handed tone and perpetuation of stereotypes about western Sydney.

People have since largely moved on from Struggle Street and the conflicts around it, but the issues it raised remain. Now another documentary, The Westside Watchman from Melbourne-based film company PLGRM, presents a stirring and fascinating portrait of Australia’s forgotten suburbs while avoiding the many failings that dogged its more well-known counterpart.

The focus of The Westside Watchman is Les Twentyman, a youth outreach worker and community activist who’s been working to alleviate poverty, violence, drug abuse and social dysfunction in Melbourne’s western suburbs for more than 35 years. Twentyman narrates the documentary and outlines the lessons he’s learned in more than three decades of helping young kids get off heroin, dissuading them from gangs and street violence, and the new challenges presented by the methamphetamine epidemic.

Working with community members and at-risk young people on the ground for so long, Twentyman is particularly scathing of the punitive, top-down approaches that so often characterise government responses to people on welfare or in need of it. He lays responsibility for the seemingly endless cycle of unemployment, alienation, financial insecurity and low self-esteem firmly at the feet of a society all to quick to forget those who fall through its cracks.

“If you’re not part of the solution then you’re definitely part of the problem,” Twentyman says. “Communities and societies fall apart when good people do nothing.”