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John Safran on extremism, creativity and how technology changed his world

John Safran and Sophie Hamley on stage. Image: Rory Banwell.

John Safran’s new book Depends What You Mean by Extremist delves into the gritty underground of extremism in Australia. His talk, however, did not.

John Safran see himself more as ‘something approximating a journalist’, he tells session chair Sophie Hamley, a publisher for Hachette Australia, and it is his journalistic instinct for a story that is always his starting point for creativity, even if that instinct puts him in harm’s way.

Australia’s fascination with Safran likely comes from this authenticity, creativity and ability to find a unique skew on topics. He describes it as the ‘schtick of plonking comedy into the real world’, particularly in situations that may not be seen as ‘comedic’.

Safran attended an ultra-conservative all-boys Orthodox Jewish high school, and it was here that a deep and ongoing fascination with religion arose, saying that it’s ‘a good starting point for humour’. Indeed, his many immersive journeys into different religions, which began in Race Around the World and continued in John Safran versus God, have led to him being baptised many times, by many different denominations.

‘I’ve got lots of good things in me. I’m very protected’.

Safran spoke about his most recent baptism, while writing Depends What You Mean By Extremist, where he inadvertently was baptised at an anti-Islam church which was then used in their online marketing. Oops.

This story personified one of the greatest changes in his work. Where previously he was afforded a sense of anonymity when creating content, he is now subjected to constant scrutiny when his presence is captured at events without context – such as Reclaim Australia rallies – and posted online.

Safran said that due to this he had been forced to disguise himself. He donned a large beard and Akubra and took on the persona of a farmer. Without this costume, Safran would not be able to fully immerse himself in the worlds he investigates.

In answer to an audience question about why he had switched to writing after years of film making, Safran cited these changes in technology and accessibility to smart phones as one of the reasons for the change. Not only does writing allow him to dig deeper into a subject matter, he is not restrained by funding, pitching or the traditional constraints that come with documentary film making.

Books are an accessible format, Safran said, and Hamley brought him back to how easily his writing flows and whether this is purposeful. Safran attributed his writing style to both the American pulp and crime fiction books he was reading at the time of researching, and his interest in dialogue and the way people talk. Safran describes his editing process as ‘ruthless’. Even after recording hours of interviews, he wasn’t afraid to chuck out chunks of information, regardless of how hard he’d worked for it.

Even though I’d come to hear about his new book, I wasn’t disappointed. The genuineness and friendliness that has always made him so endearing shone through and created an engaging, hilarious, conversation.

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