There was a point in time when Israel Folau was unstoppable.
Debuting as a teenager in the NRL, he burst onto the scene. Within a couple of seasons, Folau had won a premiership, represented his state, and was the then-second youngest player to represent his country. A brief flirtation with AFL followed, but then when he made the switch to rugby union, he reached the peak of his powers. Signing with the NSW Waratahs, he quickly cemented himself as a dynamo fullback and led the club to their first-ever title. As a result, he would become a mainstay in the Wallabies lineup and the face of Australian rugby. By that point, it was undeniable - Folau was one of the greatest athletes of his generation. But a social media post would stop his career dead in its tracks.
In 2019, Folau became embroiled in controversy when he shared a meme that stated homosexuals and other groups were destined for hell if they didn't repent. It wasn't the first time he shared that sentiment, but this occasion sparked a heated national debate. Some championed Folau for proclaiming his beliefs and took aim at a perceived intolerance for religious expression. However, most accused him of dangerously utilising his celebrity to spread blatant homophobia. The situation was a lightning rod for discussion, but little resolution came from it. Folau had his contract terminated, a drawn-out legal battle ensued, and hopes for professional sport to achieve true inclusivity took a dispiriting blow.
Four years on, Folau is now the subject of a two-part ABC TV documentary directed by Nel Minchin. The man himself is not involved, but Minchin has assembled a divergent group of individuals ranging from journalists to pastors to examine how he became the face of Australian sport's messiest saga. Following the release of part one, I spoke with Minchin about meeting Folau in Fiji, getting his former coach and teammate on camera, and what she hopes he can take away from the film. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
NOTE: For transparency, it should be stated that the author of this article worked on 'Folau' for a brief period as an archive consultant.
CONNOR DALTON: Were you a fan of Israel Folau prior to his scandal?
NEL MINCHIN: To be honest, not really because I'm a Western Australian; I'm more of an AFL follower. I knew who he was. I remember seeing him get to the Greater Western Sydney Giants and everyone being like, "This guy is like the biggest guy in the NRL." I remember that all happening. But, no, I wouldn't say I was necessarily a fan, but once I started looking into it, I realised just how much of a phenomenal athlete he really was. He's pretty amazing to watch.
DALTON: When the battle between him and Rugby Australia erupted, everybody had an opinion on it. What were your thoughts on the matter when it was originally playing out?
MINCHIN: I'm not inclined to go straight to a decision without the knowledge first. So in a context where we may have had this conversation in 2019, I might have been like, "Well, isn't that interesting?" I think I would probably be seeking out both sides of the story, even in that moment. But I never agreed with what he was saying. Like many people, I went, "That was a bigoted thing to say," and I understood why Rugby Australia made the decision they did. I'm an atheist; I don't believe in heaven and hell, and I don't believe that anyone is going to be sent there, let alone people who love whoever they want to love. So from a worldview point of view, I'm not at all connected to him.
DALTON: You didn't jump onto this project because you were a fan of him as a footballer or because you admired his religious crusade. So what appealed to you about telling his story?
MINCHIN: Well, what I'm interested in is social media, the media, and how the quick assessments of situations play out and what that means and how that affects how we think as a society. I was really interested in corporate policies of inclusion and diversity - what does that look like if they come up against cultural and philosophical views that are completely at odds? I was also interested in the clash of rights and how far an employer can reasonably go. And I was interested in the truth of what inclusion, diversity, trying to work together, and living alongside each other can look like in its most dramatic form.
DALTON: Did you ever get to meet Folau or discuss the film with him?
MINCHIN: I met him very briefly on the sidelines at the Pacific Nations Cup because we went to Fiji to film him in his first game for Tonga. We were okay to do that - it was a sports environment. I shook his hand; I felt like I needed to say, "Hey, I'm making a documentary on you," but he said nothing pretty much. We did approach him for an interview. Obviously, I think it would have been an excellent opportunity. But at the same time, I actually think the film explores a much bigger issue and conversation than just his personal story. And not having a big interview with him, I think, allowed for more balance and perspectives to flow through and become a bigger part of the story. So I feel, yes, this film is about him, but it's mostly about a much bigger issue and all the communities that were impacted by it.
DALTON: Given how sensitive this story still is, was it difficult to get people willing to discuss their feelings on camera?
MINCHIN: It was a huge challenge. I think that was the biggest challenge. We keep talking about how we got people from all the different perspectives and sides of the debate, but actually, most people sit in the middle in our film. They sit in the middle for various reasons. I think everyone knows it's a very toxic and confronting story. And certainly, our fantastic characters - Telly Tuita, Andre Afamasaga, Dan Palmer, the queer Pasifika voices - I think were very courageous to lend their voices to this. But I also think there was an opportunity for them that they hadn't yet had in the media to talk. I think it felt good for them to be able to be heard.
Andre's story was so impactful. That environment for him was so problematic. He wasn't out; people were jumping on board; it was so awful. And I know that's a story of many people across the country and the world in sports and religious communities. So I hoped to explore as much about the media and the yelling in the film as [I did] about what that player posted. How we responded as a society is why people like Andre stayed in the closet. He says he thinks a whole generation of people stayed in the closet at that moment or went back in because the environment got so toxic. And I completely appreciate there would have been people switching off early because we explore [Folau] as a person and as an athlete and his upbringing. But it does move past that, and it does become a much deeper and more diverse story in terms of who was impacted and why.
DALTON: I thought everybody who appeared in the film was quite brave. I believe that applies especially to Michael Cheika and Samu Kerevi, considering how close they once were with Folau. [Cheika coached Folau at club and international levels; Kerevi was a teammate.] How were you able to secure their involvement? I'm assuming many people with a similar connection declined to be involved.
MINCHIN: Yeah, lots of people. And it's interesting because people who were happy to be talking about it at the time and jumping on sides now were like, "Nah" (laughs). We worked with some fabulous sports journalists. A lot of those guys and girls had those connections and that trust relationship built. So it was through them, and we had our casting team that was literally made up of sports journalists who knew the sports world and had trust in the sports world. We had people from the Tongan community and the Pacific community who knew and had the trust of those guys. And we had a fabulous casting researcher who went far and wide to find Peter O'Sullivan, the [former] Melbourne Storm scout. He found that footage of Israel in under-16s. So we just had a really interesting team behind the scenes who could allow us to open and broach the conversation with quite a diverse group of people on screen.
DALTON: Did you have to gain Cheika and Kerevi's trust?
MINCHIN: Well, because of their longstanding relationships with the journalists, they were probably pretty trustworthy reasonably early. But the thing I try to do as a doc maker is gain the trust of people and then honour their trust because [their contribution] is really courageous. Samu Kerevi is a current Wallabies star, and [what he says] will confront people. And as confronting as it is - and it's confronting for me as well sitting in a chair with a different worldview from the people I'm talking to - unless you sit and listen and try and spend some time in their shoes, [you won't] understand [them].
DALTON: I appreciated that the film examines the controversy from an objective lens. How did you strike a balance between the two sides of the debate?
MINCHIN: I don't know if you do this or this is just my personality (laughs), but ultimately, it's like you're having a dinner party, and you're having a respectful, calm conversation with someone you disagree with. Dan Palmer and I share a very similar worldview. He'll say whatever he says, but then [I need] to go, "But what would Andre say to that? What would Samu Kerevi say to that?" Does Dan Palmer's view hold more weight than Samu Kerevi's? If so, why? And I have personal feelings towards that, but if we're talking about respecting people, we have to confront ourselves and go, "What are we saying here? Are we saying that Dan Palmer is more important?" We need to work out how to talk about it in a way that moves the dial forward. I think the opposite is where people go into their wormholes, and they become more and more staunch.
DALTON: The film is an excellent exploration of Israel Folau, but it is also a very insightful look at Australia's gay and religious cultures in the late 2010s. Folau held a heavy presence in both, albeit for very contrasting reasons. How did you find exploring those facets of the narrative?
MINCHIN: Well, I think archive and historical hindsight is amazing because you can put together bits of a jigsaw that we didn't realise were falling into place at the time. So I really mined the archive. I looked at the political environment at the time and looked at the dates. And [when interviewing Israel's] lawyers, they said, "We met with Israel the day after the Scott Morrison election and came up with a plan," and I was like, "That's interesting. Why did he even come up? Why is that ingrained in their brains as an important factor that weekend?" So I was like, "Cool, I'll have a look into that." Then you dig in a bit more and see [the matter] goes into parliament, his name in the senate, and people fighting about this guy on a national level. It was crazy how far it went up to the top.
DALTON: Something I found compelling about the film is how it made me perceive Folau. There were points where I felt somewhat sympathetic for him because I could see some of his actions stemmed from family pressure and naïvety. But then there were moments like when he insinuated the 2019 bushfires was God punishing Australia for its stance on gay marriage and abortion, and the goodwill I had for him once again evaporated. Still, I feel like I understand him better now. Did making this film alter your views on him in any sense?
MINCHIN: Like you, I don't think I changed my opinion. I certainly didn't go, "It's totally cool that he said that." But I was always quite interested in what is the brain space that gets you to be Israel Folau on the football field. You've got a very certain, very single-focused brain, and this probably [gave him the] ability to block out the noise. I think what was interesting is what Peter O'Sullivan and [Folau's lawyer] George Haros said about him from a personality point of view. I don't know if George's quote is in the film - I think Georgina [Robinson] talks about it - but he's got this flatline. He's got a calmness and a clearheadedness, perhaps based on the goal ahead. I thought that was fascinating.
But what do I think I know about him? This will be something that people hate me saying, but I think it's really important to understand where people come from, even if it's the worst [person] in your head. You've got to understand the context that they grew up in. And the other thing we've got to respect, whether you like what he says or not, is everyone who knew and played with him, from what I understand, said he was a nice guy, good teammate, really polite, and kind of shy. So [I] imagine that's a pretty full-on journey that he's gone on. That's why I do think it's a sad story.
DALTON: His story is not an isolated incident either. You could see similarities last year when seven Manly Warringah Sea Eagles players refused to wear a rainbow jersey due to their beliefs. Certain athletes will have their views, but their codes and clubs will continue to strive for inclusivity. Is there a solution to this clash of cultures?
MINCHIN: I don't know. I mean, I'm not a sports marketing person (laughs). People like Jioji Ravulo, who is on screen but is also a professor of sociology at Sydney University, has advisory roles in the leagues and identifies as queer and has a really strong understanding of deep faith upbringing. I was with him last night, and he was saying, "I just hope this opens up the conversation in a slightly different way than it used to." And I'm sure with Manly last year, and surely after this film, there's not a single club who is going to do any of these kinds of brand alignments.
I think they're going to maybe take a little bit more into account where all their players are coming from and have a proper constructive conversation about it. I think they have to. The real sense that I got from the football community is you can't literally bring people over from the Pacific Highlands, build them up into a sports team, and then not include them in some of these decisions. I think all of that comes into why Israel did what he did. I sensed a frustration that it was a very historically white-run organisation and, you know, there's lots of great stuff there, but there needs to be a little bit more consultation and understanding of what's going on. I do worry when I say all this stuff. Please make it clear that I obviously think inclusion is key. It's just... how do we do it in the world that we live in?
DALTON: If Folau watches the film, what do you hope he takes away from it?
MINCHIN: I think he needs more context of the story as well. I think he needs to understand where that stuff landed because who knows what he was actually thinking. Theoretically, he was like, "I should be allowed to post this stuff on social media. I'm standing up for my beliefs," and maybe that's as far as he thought about it. I'm sure he got people yelling at him on the street and all of that, but that's all pretty aggressive. People saying, "You're a dickhead mate," isn't going to land on his ears, is it? None of that is going to go in. But maybe if he got the opportunity to sit and talk about it in a calm and safe space, he would be able to understand more.
Part two of 'Folau' airs on Thursday the 25th of May at 8pm on ABC. Both parts are also now available to stream for free on ABC iView.