Filmmaker Varcha Sidwell had set herself a difficult task.
Not only did she have to find six young people of different religions – who were each strongly committed to their faith – she then had to convince them to trade lives for two weeks.
This is the premise of new ABC1 show Holy Switch, the experimental three-part series airing on ABC1 from this Sunday evening. (May 12).
The participants include an Australian Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, Anglican, Buddhist and Hindu, each of whom claim their religion is a central aspect of their life and community.
“It isn’t just about switching religion, it was about switching culture, place and lifestyle,” says director Sidwell, herself a practicing Catholic. “I was very interested in what happens in that situation.”
Sidwell looked nation-wide for her six young participants, who hail from Tasmania, Sydney, Melbourne and the Queensland hinterland.
“When we first started looking for people we actually thought, ‘Where are we going to find people of that age group?’ so we thought we’d start looking at universities, call out to different faith groups, the interface community… and [through all of these we found] personal contacts who started contacting other people,” she says.
“It was very much word of mouth.”
However, the battle didn’t end once Sidwell found a willing participant.
“It was very difficult convincing the families and communities to participate, which I can understand. There is a natural scepticism of how they may be dealt with. It was much better to get individual switches to agree rather than whole communities.
“It’s a huge credit to those who let us come in and let us film what they have to offer and what they do. It’s a very intimate setting – family life.”
The switches will see a Western Sydney Maronite Catholic trade places with a Buddhist who lives in a rural Queensland retreat; a committed Anglican youth leader live in a Hindi household (and experience the vegan diet that comes with it) and a young Jewish woman step change places with a committed Muslim.
As Sidwell points out, it’s not only the religious differences that take getting used to, but a whole new lifestyle, community, and, at times, diet and climate.
“But they all committed themselves to doing it, none of them were prepared to bail out,” Sidwell says. “I think a lot of the time it was not so much the religion difficulty but the culture and being homesick at the end of the day.”
It turned out to be a challenging and moving experience for Sidwell, who says she was constantly surprised at circumstances which occurred throughout the shoot.
“People just don’t do what you expect. I had no idea that Freeman the Buddhist would find the relationship with the mass and the worship of Jesus and Mary so resonant with his Buddhist faith. That was quite surprising to me. I was really moved myself when [Anglican] Kim is crying over… she’s really worried about the spiritual fate of the [Hindu] family she’s staying with, which she’s come to really grow to love.
“It was just totally unexpected.”
For those watching the show, Sidwell says she hopes they will be able to put faces to the different religions and be inspired by Australia’s multi-cultural society.
“I found it quite amazing to think we’ve got so many different communities and faith groups being able to practice their culture and religion and get on…. in so many other countries you couldn’t have this,” she says.
“It’s inspirational for me.
“I am hoping the audience will see those people in their early twenties and see their faith and tradition and think, ‘There is something of value there.’ Even if they don’t agree with it.”
Holy Switch will premiere this Sunday on ABC1 at 6pm.