Estranged families united in SBS's radical new show

Ray Martin hosts the TV series Look Me In The Eye.
Ray Martin hosts the TV series Look Me In The Eye. SBS

FAMILY reunions are nothing new to television.

The emotional roller coaster of searching for and reconnecting with a long-lost loved one makes for compelling viewing, as seen recently on series like Long Lost Family and Find My First Love.

According to a University of Melbourne survey, more than three million Australians are estranged from their loved ones.

Look Me In the Eye, a new reality series, takes a radical approach to reconciliation.

The social experiment explores what happens when two estranged people come face to face, without conversation, to use only eye contact to express themselves.

In complete silence, two individuals are brought together in a room. One is the person seeking to reconnect with someone they have become estranged from; the other is the person they want to reconnect with. Sitting face to face, they look each other in the eye for at least five minutes, without speaking.

Kayleigh and Peter in a scene from the TV series Look Me In The Eye.
Kayleigh and Peter in a scene from the TV series Look Me In The Eye. SBS

Whether it's a son confronting the dad who abandoned him or the former child soldier seeing remorse in the eyes of the man who tortured him, Look Me In the Eye is emotionally potent viewing.

"It's one of those reality shows that people are going to relate to. We all know somebody either friend or family who haven't spoken to someone," Ray says.

"If it didn't happen to you, then it happened to someone you know. Like First Contact, I think this is a really positive series in the sense that people will realise that we're not alone in our thoughts or our circumstances."

After the period of eye contact, the two individuals are then given time alone in separate rooms where they deliberate on whether they want to reconnect with the other person - or choose to leave without seeing them again.

The results are touching, surprising and sometimes shocking.

Single mum Jenny hadn't spent any meaningful time with her son in nearly two years when she decided to apply for the show.

Jenny and her son Carl in a scene from Look Me In The Eye.
Jenny and her son Carl in a scene from Look Me In The Eye. SBS

Raising her son Carl on her own, the successful Brisbane businesswoman was shocked when he announced at the age of 18 he was moving out to live with his girlfriend.

"We were really, really close. The first time he said he was moving out with his girlfriend he said 'Mum I don't need you anymore'," Jenny tells The Guide. "It was an instant 'kill me' thing."

The decision caused a rift between the mother and son, leaving Jenny heartbroken.

Texts, phone calls and emails went unanswered. Jenny saw Look Me in the Eye as a last-ditch attempt to show Carl how much she missed him.

"I tried so hard through his friends, anybody I know but he politely just said 'I'm busy' and hung up," she says.

"I emailed him many times telling him how much I love him, saying no matter what I will love you until my last breathe… I think kids want more freedom these days.

"I'd spoken to him on the phone before I came on the show and said 'can you give me the chance?'"

Sitting in a chair with cameras focused on her, Jenny wasn't even sure if Carl would show up.

"I used to say to him 'If you one day decide to leave home without good terms with me you have to take the consequences'," she says. "I regretted what I said a little bit. Luckily this show got us back (together)."

After watching the footage of her reunion with Carl for the first time at SBS's mid-year programming launch in Sydney recently, Jenny describes the experience as nerve-racking but ultimately rewarding.

Jenny and her son Carl in a scene from the TV series Look Me In The Eye.
Jenny and her son Carl in a scene from the TV series Look Me In The Eye. SBS

"I had mixed feelings. I was so excited to see him after so long and I had a lot of hope because I tried so hard to get him back home but I was really scared," she says.

"When I saw Carl's eyes I could tell he was just saying 'Mum I'm sorry'. When he decided to come on the show he already made the first step to patch up our relationship.

"I believe this show brought us together much faster than just through ourselves. It would have taken years probably to repair our relationship."

Look Me In the Eye premieres on Wednesday, September 6 at 8.30pm on SBS.

Topics:  ray martin sbs television

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