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Zoë Coombs Marr: the balancing act of history and comedy in Queerstralia

The comedian, creator, writer and host of three-part documentary series Queerstralia on why making documentary is like wrangling a “living, breathing, terrifying beast.”

In the midst of lockdowns, people did some wild things: bought six-month supplies of toilet paper, started baking sourdough, or, in the case of comedian Zoë Coombs Marr, began making a documentary.

“I never wanted to make a documentary. It never even occurred to me,” Coombs Marr says. “[But] in the pandemic I was, like everyone and particularly comedians, sort of sitting around and doing like weird little bits and pieces.”

Coombs Marr’s special Bossy Bottom had released (watch on ABC iview here) and there was a lockdown comedy special with Guesswork Television in the works when executive producer Jon Casimir pitched the idea of making a factual program.

They tossed ideas around and one stuck: uncovering the untold queer history of Australia AKA Queerstralia.

“We did the original, research development on Zoom in 2020… And then seven hundred years later, here we are,” Coombs Marr says, ahead of the series launch on 28 February on ABC.

“Once we scratched the surface, there were all these stories that I'm sure even most queer people don't know. You know that dream where you find an extra room in your house? It was a bit like that, but it was full of gay convicts.”

That research period included building a team of people that reflected the diversity of stories they were telling in multiple ways, so one person was never faced with the burden of representing an entire community.

“Especially with Queer identities and First Nation identities, obviously it's not one story: there's so many different stories. It was really important not just to be like, ‘tick. We spoke to one person.’ The conversation about queerness is very complex. Everyone has a different take."

The team worked with trans researchers as well as First Nations creatives and advocates such as actor/writer Nayuka Gorrie, Victorian Commissioner for LGBTIQ+ Communities Todd Fernando, and producer/consultant Davey Thompson. Gorrie would also join the project as a presenter to guide audiences through the First Nation experiences.

The result is a three-part series that achieves its promise – highlighting those hidden Queer stories of lesbian convict gangs, gal pals of the 19th century, trans pioneers and gay diggers, as well as understanding the impact of colonisation on First Nations sexualities, and hearing from modern-day heroes such as the 78ers and comedy icons including Magda Szubanski and Hannah Gadsby.

It also deftly walks the line between the facts and humour, allowing for serious moments to shine, while also highlighting the absurdity of some situations.

“Queer people have always used humour, as has any kind of any marginalised group,” Coombs Marr says. “We use humour to connect with each other and to work through and cope with the trauma that comes with being marginalised or outcast from society…

“The way we sometimes get presented is very serious, very worthy and overly earnest, and it doesn't feel true to me, [or reflective of] the humour and wildness of our community.”

She credits director Stamatia Maroupas (Ms Represented, The House with Annabel Crabb) for navigating the tone of the series with aplomb.

“Everything is shot beautifully and treated with real care. What Stam brings to it is this dignity and weight to the content, the factual/history aspect of it and the interviews.”

When it came to piecing together those interviews and footage in the writing of Queerstralia, Coombs Marr’s says it was a process of scripting and rescripting, then scripting and rescripting, then… you get the picture.

“From the research, you decide who you want to interview. But then you get into these interviews and you’re like, “Oh my God, I wasn't expecting you to say that?!” Now we've got to include that.”

She says she scripted as much as possible, but inevitably surprises in the interviews would take them in a different direction and highlight story themes they hadn’t planned for. But within that are the incredible moments of resilience, authenticity and a shared history.

“It's a process of filtering and sifting and reordering,” she says. “It's not perfect either. None of this stuff is. Queer history is really messy with lots of different stories and different people with different approaches.”

Would she make a documentary again? “Ask me in a year maybe,” she says. “Maybe every documentary-maker would say this, but it is so hard.” She remembers director Stamatia Maroupas telling her early on that by the end of the process, they would know what the best route would have been.

“And that's exactly what it feels like: almost every single thing we've done, I can see there would be an easier way to do it with hindsight, but because you're dealing with real people and real situations and their stories, the making of it is a process of learning and uncovering, so that’s been awesome as well,” she says.

“It is a living, breathing, terrifying beast – making documentary.”

Queerstralia premieres on Tuesday February 28 at 8.30pm on ABC and ABC iview.