Over the last few years, we’ve seen a significant increase in dramatised accounts of real-life stories, from true crime series to biopics. Not only do these give us a chance to get a bird’s eye view of other people's lives, but stepping into someone else's shoes often allows us to learn something about our own lives, communities and the human condition. But as our curiosity about historic events heightens, so does the expectation for creators to retell these real-life stories — and especially those involving trauma — with care.
This was certainly a key priority for Katrina Irawati Graham and Peter Andrikidis when directing Stan's Original series Bali 2002. The four-part series revisits the 2002 terrorist attacks on two of Kuta Beach’s busiest nightclubs, which killed 202 people, including 88 Australians, and left many others injured.
Given the traumatic nature of the incident, obtaining the permission of the people whose perspectives would be explored in the series was paramount. These included, but weren’t limited to, UK citizen Polly Miller, whose husband died in Bali bombings, Australians Nicole McClean, Jason McCartney and Jono Liddel, who were severely injured in the attacks, and Indonesian woman Ni Luh Erniati, whose husband also died as a result of the bombings.
Andrikidis explains that after permission was sought and granted, the real-life people who were being portrayed on screen were regularly consulted throughout different stages of the production.
"The cast could talk to them at any time," Andrikidis tells Refinery29 Australia, adding that a key factor in retelling the stories with care was ensuring accuracy and authenticity in the events shown on screen.
"It's difficult to tell the stories, but we must tell them because they're Australian stories, and the bottom line is to be sensitive and respectable, and that's what we tried to do on set," he says.
"When we're shooting those traumatic scenes, we must get authenticity and it must be truthful. You're going to go to places that are deep, so you can't be dishonest when you portray these things."
Rather than showing graphic details that could be triggering for both the people being portrayed and the wider audience, the production relied on the actors "driving the drama" through their performances.
"There was footage that we had access to — Indonesian footage from the news team there — that I caught a glimpse of and then stopped, because we obviously weren't going to go there," says Andrikidis. "We're dealing with the trauma with characters, so we follow their points of view and get inside their heads.
"Playing true characters brings out three-dimensional characters. They're not a function in a story, they are three-dimensional people. So if you can create three-dimensional people — which those actors did — then that's the truth... they don't sugarcoat it, don't make it into a soap opera."
Graham emphasises that Bali 2022 is "about the human experience" and not the "visceral damage", and therefore the portrayal of real-life people is so important.
"It's about the human experience, what happened and how do people deal with it and how do we move forward?" she says.
The Indonesian-Australian director highlights that along with psychologists and an Employee Assistance Program being provided to all cast, crew and real-life victims on set, particular attention was directed towards ensuring that the Indonesian people involved in the production were supported from a psychological and cultural perspective.
"We had a lot of Indonesian people on set because we were shooting Sydney as Bali," Graham explains. "It's especially hard for [people playing] the bombers, because as Indonesian people and usually as men, you don't get a lot of roles. And then these roles come along, and they're terrorists — and that's a hard role to play.
"From the very beginning, Peter and I and the writers really wanted to make sure that these were humans. They're people who did horrendous things, who did devastating things, but we want to show humanity and not a cardboard cutout of a person," she says.
Graham recalls seeing one of the actors who portrayed a bomber "crying" after his takes. "I had to go and hug him and hold him because he was just going there," she says.
As well as enlisting the help of Indonesian-born Ketut Djuliarsa Sastrawan as story editor on the show, Graham devised a cultural safety document with Sara Richardson, the Head of Drama at production company Endemol Shine. By producing this document, Graham's aim was to ensure that Indonesian people not only felt culturally safe on set, but that their culture was respected throughout production.
"I work in this space of cultural safety, so as a woman of colour working in a very white industry, I'm very aware of these things," says Graham. "So I wanted to take care of the community, the actors, the story and the audience.
"We wanted to create something that would really ensure that we have the ability to think ahead of time about what pain points might exist, what we needed to mitigate, what we needed to care for. We had Balinese people on set so we made sure that those people were always asked for land — for permission — every day.
"We had shrines on set, so story editor Ketut Djuliarsa Sastrawan would make sure that the shrines went from one set to the other. We also had Muslim people on set, so we made sure there was a place for them to pray.
"We also filmed through Ramadan, so we had to make sure people could stop, and I was fasting as well," she says. "So we wanted to make sure that we could stop when we needed to."
Throughout the four episodes, viewers will be confronted by the horrific actions of the bombers, the deaths of innocent people and authorities working hard to pinpoint the culprits. But with the trauma comes the inspiring actions of everyday heroes who "defied the odds to bring order from chaos and hope from despair."
Andrikidis says by creating this show about the real-life Bali bombing, there's the hope that it never happens again and that even in tragedy, there is great strength in humanity.
"Even in our darkest moments, we can shine," agrees Graham. "Even in our darkest moments, we can heal and we can find our way forward together.
"People help each other through and I think that's where we are in the world today. That message is eternal."
Interviews have been edited for clarity and length. The Stan Original Bali 2002 premieres on Stan on Sunday, September 25.