SBS Original series While The Men Are Away may be about Australian women who remained on the home front during World War II, but it also portrays a microcosm of society that is often unrepresented in mainstream media.
The eight-part dramedy series follows Frankie (Michela De Rossi), who’s left in charge of her suffering apple farm after her husband is sent to war (or was he?), who enlists Gwen (Max McKenna) and Esther (Jana Zvedeniuk), the freshly enlisted naïve city-recruits of the Women’s Land Army, to join herself, local Indigenous farmhand Kathleen (Phoebe Grainer) and certified coward Robert (Matt Testro).
Speaking to Mediaweek before the series premiere on September 27, Zvedeniuk lamented that just because “these people, have unfortunately been so invisible in our media and storytelling since that time, doesn’t mean that they were not there.”
“Those people were there and those people did have stories to tell,” she said. “Elissa [Down] and the creators of the show did an incredible job in zeroing in on that and bringing that little awesome group of people together and sticking them on a farm and watching them bounce off each other and chaos ensue.”
Further, the 24-year-old, who is of Jewish faith and Ukrainian and English heritage, said that it was really “exciting” to see “all those diverse cultures in the same room”.
“I didn’t find it removed from reality at all,” she said. “To see a young Jewish girl and an Indigenous young woman cutting onions together in a kitchen… There’s so much beauty and poetry in that.”
The series not only delves into what it was like for the group but also explores the LBTQIA+ experience in the 1940s.
“There are so many iterations if you look at the different groups within the farm,” she said. “Like how queer people have shown support for the Indigenous community and different minorities holding space for one another, I think this show is such a testament to that.”
The cast ties to World War II
Of course, the series showcases the impacts of WWII in Australia, and even though they’re a young cast, both Zvedeniuk and her co-star Testro, 29 (who plays a conscientious objector) have very close ties to the time period.
When talking about his character, he said: “It was a struggle for him to want to go and risk his life for people that don’t have his best interests at heart and for people he’s got to hide his true self from.”
As for his own grandfather, he was considered an “essential trade”.
“My grandfather on my dad’s side was one of the 13 brothers and sisters,” Testro said during the same interview. “So he had himself, many different brothers that were either at war or at home. He was at home because he was a coppersmith, so he was considered an essential trade, whereas his younger brother was a Chocolate Soldier over in Kokoda.
“So you’ve got two very different dynamics. God knows what my grandfather went through, just what people would have assumed about him.”
Given her heritage, Zvedeniuk has a very close history with the war in which the series is set, particularly with the Holocaust.
“It was deeply moving, especially later into the season when news of what’s happening in Europe reaches the farm,” she said. My grandparents and my great-grandparents were in hiding all of World War Two when there was a pervasive threat of Nazi Germany and they had friends who were shipped off to concentration camps, but luckily they remained in hiding.”
While The Men Are Away is produced by AACTA Award-nominated producer Lisa Shaunessy (Sissy, 2067, Hipsters) and created by Arcadia’s Alexandra Burke (Sissy), acclaimed writer Kim Wilson (Deadloch, The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart), and AACTA Award-winning writer and director, Monica Zanetti (Ellie & Abbie (& Ellie’s Dead Aunt)). Showrunner, Wilson wrote and developed the series with, Burke and Zanetti, alongside Magda Wozniak, Enoch Mailangi, Sam Icklow and Jada Alberts.
While The Men Are Away is an Arcadia production for SBS with major production investment from Screen Australia in association with SBS. Financed with support from Screen NSW.
All eight episodes of While The Men Are Away will be available to stream free on SBS On Demand from Wednesday 27 September, with double episodes premiering on SBS each Wednesday at 8.30 pm.