Nakkiah Lui and the new wave

The Monthly (Australia) - - FRONT PAGE - by Ben­jamin Law

Let’s rewind to 1992. Hey Dad..! and Burke’s Back­yard still passed for whole­some Aus­tralian fam­ily TV. Bruce Sa­mazan and Ge­orgie Parker were big, as were Fast For­ward, Brides of Christ, E Street, G.P. and Agro. Effie had big hair, Larry Em­dur still had hair and Ray Martin’s was the same. Draw­card guests at the Lo­gies that year in­cluded John Sta­mos from Full House, English ac­tor Den­nis Water­man and for­mer prime min­is­ter Bob Hawke, who was pretty chip­per given Paul Keat­ing had rolled him only months be­fore. The big­gest scan­dal that year? Gold Lo­gie win­ner Jana Wendt not claim­ing her gong in per­son.

Look­ing back, though, the big­ger scan­dal was re­ally the blind­ing white­ness. Lo­gies at­ten­dees in 1992 were as An­glo as the in­dus­try it­self. As head of Indige­nous for Screen Aus­tralia Penny Smal­la­combe points out, if you were a black ac­tor who passed for white in 1992, you’d prob­a­bly have kept the fact you were Indige­nous to your­self. Dozens of Indige­nous per­form­ers – from Jus­tine Saun­ders to Ernie Dingo – had acted in Aus­tralian TV drama and com­edy for years by then, but no known black ac­tors were in any lead or on­go­ing roles in any dra­mas or come­dies that year.

Around this time, film­maker and Ar­rernte woman Rachel Perkins – then in her 20s – was work­ing as an ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer at SBS. Most Indige­nous Aus­tralian TV pro­gram­ming con­sisted of mag­a­zine-for­mat fac­tual shows; Perkins wanted to aim higher. “Not to de­tract from the im­por­tance of those shows,” she says. “A lot of us built our ca­reers mak­ing them and a lot of Aus­tralians learnt from them, but it was a case of low as­pi­ra­tions.” Perkins had more am­bi­tious ideas to pitch: a pres­tige Indige­nous drama, an Indige­nous sketch com­edy, and get­ting the NSW Koori Knock­out rugby league com­pe­ti­tion on air. None got the green light. (“Not big enough, no one cares, why would we do that?” is what she re­calls hear­ing about the NSW Koori Knock­out.) Frus­trated, Perkins left the broad­caster to start her own pro­duc­tion com­pany.

Fast for­ward to this year and ABC TV’s Mys­tery Road – di­rected by Perkins, and star­ring big-name Indige­nous ac­tors such as Aaron Ped­er­sen, Deb­o­rah Mail­man and Wayne Blair – scores 786,000 view­ers in overnight cap­i­tal city view­ers alone. It even thumps nearly all of the com­mer­cial com­pe­ti­tion, in­clud­ing the hyped Chan­nel 7 tell-all in­ter­view with Barn­aby Joyce and Vikki Cam­pion. Aus­tralian crit­ics favourably com­pare Mys­tery Road to Fargo; The New York Times de­clares it one of their picks of 2018 so far.

“That’s the sweet spot for me, that show,” says the ABC’s head of scripted pro­duc­tion, Sally Ri­ley, the first Indige­nous per­son at the ABC to over­see all com­edy and drama. “It’s di­verse, it’s Indige­nous, it’s re­ally Aus­tralian. But it works over­seas, hav­ing Judy Davis. It’s the full pack­age for me. Right on char­ter and it hit an au­di­ence.”

Indige­nous peo­ple aren’t just in­vited to the Lo­gies now; they’re win­ning them. Mi­randa Tapsell has two; Deb­o­rah Mail­man has four. Perkins’ ideas that were re­jected in the early ’90s have since be­come hits for other Indige­nous TV pro­duc­ers, di­rec­tors and broad­cast­ers. The NSW Koori Knock­out is NITV’s big­gest an­nual broad­cast event. ABC TV’s Black Com­edy be­gan air­ing its third se­ries last month, and a fourth sea­son is al­ready in devel­op­ment. Pres­tige Indige­nous dra­mas such as Red­fern Now – which Perkins co-di­rected and her com­pany Black­fella Films pro­duced – have been both pop­u­lar and crit­i­cal hits. “We’re see­ing all that work come to fruition,” Perkins says, ex­hal­ing hap­pily. “Deeply sat­is­fy­ing.”

The “we” Perkins refers to are the dozens of tightknit Indige­nous pro­fes­sion­als now work­ing in ev­ery sec­tor of Aus­tralia’s film, TV and stage in­dus­tries – from fund­ing or­gan­i­sa­tions to train­ing schools, in­de­pen­dent pro­duc­tion com­pa­nies and broad­cast­ers. They in­clude peo­ple such as Wal Saun­ders – who founded the Abo­rig­i­nal and Tor­res Strait Is­lan­der Pro­gramme at the Aus­tralian Film Com­mis­sion (AFC), which is now Screen Aus­tralia’s Indige­nous Depart­ment – and Smal­la­combe, who runs that depart­ment now; di­rec­tors such as War­wick Thorn­ton and Ivan Sen; ac­tors such as Tapsell, Rar­ri­wuy Hick and Shari Sebbens; screen­writ­ers such as Ryan Grif­fen and Briggs; and ac­tor-writer-di­rec­tor triple threats like Leah Pur­cell, Nakkiah Lui and Wayne Blair. Some won­der if we’ve reached the golden age of pop­u­lar Indige­nous sto­ry­telling. Tapsell refers to it as a black­out.

What­ever you call it, in one gen­er­a­tion Aus­tralian TV went from a near-to­tal white­wash to Indige­nous Aus­tralians hav­ing their real-world pop­u­la­tion re­flected pro­por­tion­ately on screen. No other Aus­tralian mi­nor­ity group has come close. Canada’s peak screen fund­ing body has been so im­pressed it has repli­cated Screen Aus­tralia’s model for its own First Na­tions film­mak­ers.

As mem­bers of the old­est hu­man civil­i­sa­tion, Indige­nous Aus­tralians clearly have a cul­tural im­per­a­tive in telling their sto­ries. At the same time, they feel there are im­por­tant lessons that queer, cul­tur­ally di­verse and dis­abled Aus­tralians – all still vastly un­der-rep­re­sented on screen and stage – can learn from the Indige­nous model. How did #Black­Ex­cel­lence hap­pen on Aus­tralian TV? “Well, it hasn’t come from peo­ple hav­ing it handed to them,” Tapsell says. Which is to say, it hasn’t hap­pened by ac­ci­dent.

In one gen­er­a­tion Aus­tralian TV went from a near-to­tal white­wash to Indige­nous Aus­tralians hav­ing their real-world pop­u­la­tion re­flected pro­por­tion­ately on screen.

Over break­fast in Syd­ney’s Chip­pen­dale, Nakkiah Lui is try­ing to con­vince me she’s ac­tu­ally slow­ing down right now. After di­rect­ing or writ­ing three main­stage the­atre pro­duc­tions (an Indige­nous ver­sion of the Amer­i­can play An Oc­toroon, and her own plays Blackie Blackie Brown and Black Is the New White) and writ­ing and star­ring in a TV show (ABC TV’s Kiki and Kitty) in the space of a year, Lui’s ver­sion of “slow­ing down” in­volves writ­ing an­other play for the Syd­ney The­atre Com­pany (“well, my main play, and [an­other] com­mis­sion”); writ­ing her first fea­ture film; de­vel­op­ing a new TV show; pen­ning a book for Allen & Un­win; and co-host­ing her pod­cast with Mi­randa Tapsell. There’s also a sep­a­rate mys­tery project (for “fun”). Lui’s con­cept of “time off” in­volves head­ing to Europe for a month so she can fin­ish writ­ing her book.

You can see why Good Week­end pro­claimed Lui (a self-de­scribed “fat kid from Mount Druitt who didn’t know any­one in this in­dus­try”) the next David Wil­liamson. It’s se­duc­tive to think Aus­tralia is so pro­gres­sive that our ap­pointed voice of a gen­er­a­tion can go from a mid­dle­class white man to a work­ing-class, Gami­la­raay and Tor­res Strait Is­lan­der woman. But com­par­isons seem un­fair. After all, Wil­liamson was 28 when his first play de­buted. By the same age, Lui had penned half a dozen plays, and had writ­ten and co-starred in her own TV show. Lui says she is flat­tered by the com­par­i­son, but also notes, “Maybe David Wil­liamson was the first Nakkiah Lui.”

Lui is up­front about the fact her work wouldn’t ex­ist were it not for the in­fra­struc­ture Indige­nous peo­ple had set up years be­fore she ar­rived. In 2012, the same year Lui was fin­ish­ing her law de­gree, she won the Aus­tralia Coun­cil’s in­au­gu­ral Dream­ing Award and the Bal­naves Foun­da­tion Indige­nous Play­wright’s Award, each worth $20,000.

Lui only started work­ing in TV be­cause Sally Ri­ley, who was ABC’s head of Indige­nous at the time, sent an open call-out for Black Com­edy: Are you a black­fella who thinks you’re funny? It changed Lui’s life. “There’s real strength and sol­i­dar­ity in the Abo­rig­i­nal com­mu­nity in the in­dus­try at the mo­ment,” she says. “And there’s been such a his­tory of work pre­ced­ing me.”

Part of that his­tory can be traced to Wal Saun­ders’ found­ing of what is now Screen Aus­tralia’s Indige­nous depart­ment 25 years ago. Saun­ders says that be­fore the early ’90s there was al­most an un­writ­ten rule that no Abo­rig­i­nal per­son – or any per­son of colour – could sell but­ter on TV. “Only white peo­ple did,” he says. “Ev­ery Abo­rig­i­nal char­ac­ter you saw was ei­ther a drunk, or a woman who got raped or bashed. This is how we were type­cast. And it got a lot of peo­ple very an­gry.”

The racism Saun­ders en­coun­tered in the in­dus­try was some­times overt, some­times in­sti­tu­tional. Of­ten it was both. In the 1980s, Saun­ders – along­side Indige­nous ag­i­ta­tors, writ­ers and per­form­ers such as Bob Maza and Jus­tine Saun­ders – was part of a screen ad­vi­sory panel at the Aus­tralian In­sti­tute of Abo­rig­i­nal and Tor­res Strait Is­lan­der Stud­ies. Part of the job in­volved col­lat­ing archival Indige­nous footage at the ABC. Saun­ders was as­tounded at no­ta­tions ABC staff had made in the archival doc­u­men­ta­tion, some of which ca­su­ally re­ferred to Indige­nous Aus­tralians as “Abos”.

While Aus­tralian the­atre and me­dia or­gan­i­sa­tions went about es­tab­lish­ing Indige­nous de­part­ments and ini­tia­tives, the screen in­dus­try was – as Saun­ders puts it – made up of “lone rangers not do­ing a bloody thing”. Part of Saun­ders’ chal­lenge in set­ting up the Abo­rig­i­nal and Tor­res Strait Is­lan­der Pro­gramme at the AFC was pre-empt­ing ar­gu­ments that it wasn’t nec­es­sary. In sem­i­nars with key stake­hold­ers, Saun­ders repli­cated the “blue eyes, brown eyes” ex­er­cise pi­o­neered by Amer­i­can anti-racism ac­tivist Jane El­liott, in which peo­ple are seg­re­gated by eye colour and real-world dis­crim­i­na­tion is repli­cated in a con­trolled en­vi­ron­ment. “We had them howl­ing, cry­ing and ar­gu­ing – ev­ery­thing,” Saun­ders says. “Then every­one re­ally knew. There were no ques­tions asked.”

To be­gin with, though, there was no fund­ing be­sides Saun­ders’ salary and on-costs. Us­ing equal parts diplo­macy and ag­i­ta­tion (“I made it sound like they were miss­ing the boat”), Saun­ders con­vinced the AFC to fund work­shops where six Indige­nous writer-di­rec­tors would ul­ti­mately make their own short films. It was ex­pen­sive – at least $50,000 or more, Saun­ders reck­ons. How­ever, stu­dents in­cluded a young War­wick Thorn­ton, who has since won Best Film twice at the pres­ti­gious Asia Pa­cific Screen Awards, for Sam­son & Delilah and Sweet Coun­try.

Fel­low stu­dent Richard Fran­k­land’s No Way To For­get won Best Short Film at the 1996 AFI Awards and was se­lected for Un Cer­tain Re­gard at Cannes. Saun­ders still has a photo from the trip to France. “It’s glo­ri­ous,” he says. “My­self, my mother and Richard – and the three of us are stand­ing there, just after the award. None of us are look­ing at the cam­era. We’re look­ing at our­selves and we’ve got these beam­ing grins.”

By the time Ri­ley took over Saun­ders’ role at the AFC in 2000, pres­tige Amer­i­can TV shows such as The So­pra­nos and The West Wing were chang­ing how we watched – and what we ex­pected from – scripted tele­vi­sion.

“To get our work to a big­ger au­di­ence, I knew tele­vi­sion was where we were go­ing,” Ri­ley says. “With TV, you can de­velop a char­ac­ter and sto­ry­line. You can tell big, big sto­ries.” When she started as the ABC’s head of Indige­nous a decade later, Ri­ley went in with a clear mis­sion state­ment: to make pop­u­lar Indige­nous shows for all Aus­tralians. Red­fern Now, The Gods of Wheat Street, 8MMM Abo­rig­i­nal Ra­dio, Clev­er­man and Black Com­edy were all pro­duced on her watch.

Red­fern Now was the big turn­ing point. Ri­ley had ad­mired Bri­tish TV drama The Street and saw how the ABC could use the same an­thol­ogy for­mat to show­case con­tem­po­rary Indige­nous Aus­tralian sto­ries. Ri­ley emailed The Street’s cre­ator Jimmy McGovern, who sub­se­quently worked on Red­fern Now as story pro­ducer along­side Ri­ley, fel­low ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Erica Glynn, Black­fella Films’ Dar­ren Dale and Mi­randa Dear, and a gun team of creatives that in­cluded Rachel Perkins.

To launch the first se­ries, in 2013, the ABC held a big out­door screen­ing at the Block in Red­fern, com­plete with ice-cream trucks. They had ex­pected the thou­sands of lo­cals who showed up, but were sur­prised to see white peo­ple ar­riv­ing from the posh North Shore. “There was such a cel­e­bra­tion around it,” Ri­ley says. “All of the staff at the ABC felt own­er­ship of the show, which was re­ally won­der­ful.”

Still, some se­nior ABC staff were anx­ious. Ri­ley had to fight to en­sure Red­fern Now got a prime-time slot. “Peo­ple were ter­ri­fied,” she says. The anx­i­ety was con­ta­gious.

Pro­ducer Dale says se­cur­ing prime time meant all eyes were on them. “That’s when you’re kind of bit­ing your nails, white-knuck­led, think­ing, Is this go­ing to work?”

The day after Red­fern Now pre­miered, Ri­ley was driv­ing with her son when a col­league rang with the overnight rat­ings: 749,000 view­ers. The show would go on to av­er­age 1.1 mil­lion view­ers – the kind of num­bers re­al­ity-TV fi­nals of­ten get. “I just had to pull the car over,” Ri­ley says. “I was scream­ing, then got on the phone with Dar­ren, and then Erica. We were just go­ing crazy.”

Dale re­mem­bers the phone call well; it made him leap out of bed. “One of the most thrilling, ca­reerdefin­ing mo­ments I can re­mem­ber,” he says.

Red­fern Now would go on to win four Lo­gies and five Aus­tralian Academy of Cinema and Tele­vi­sion Arts (AACTA) awards, and sell over­seas. Given Indige­nous Aus­tralians ac­count for roughly 3 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion, it clearly wasn’t just them watch­ing. “It was amaz­ing,” Ri­ley says. “Peo­ple came to our show. It felt like we’d crashed through some­thing.”

Saun­ders cites Red­fern Now as one of his favourite Aus­tralian TV shows. For him, fund­ing Indige­nous sto­ries for screen is about not just cos­metic rep­re­sen­ta­tion but also deeper is­sues of repa­ra­tion. “We go back in this coun­try for 3200 gen­er­a­tions,” he says. “It’s only been in five or six gen­er­a­tions that all 3200 gen­er­a­tions have been smashed up. So we want our own [sto­ries]. Whether other peo­ple think it’s needed or not is to­tally ir­rel­e­vant. We’ve shown that if you give us what we want the way we want it – and steer clear of us – it’ll pay div­i­dends.”

Kel­rick Martin, who took over from Sally Ri­ley as ABC TV’s head of Indige­nous in 2016, gets why some peo­ple might ques­tion whether his depart­ment is still needed, given Indige­nous screen sto­ries now rate. “We’re do­ing fac­tual; there’s al­ready a fac­tual depart­ment. We’re do­ing drama; there’s al­ready a drama depart­ment,” he says. “In the­ory, there’s a real ques­tion as to what we do and why we ex­ist.” But only in the­ory, he says. After all, the ABC and SBS have cul­tural di­ver­sity en­shrined in their char­ters (and for SBS, Abo­rig­i­nal and Tor­res Strait Is­lan­der rep­re­sen­ta­tion specif­i­cally). ABC Indige­nous is also tasked to pro­duce 14 to 16 hours of con­tent per year, which means many pop­u­lar shows wouldn’t ex­ist with­out it. The Indige­nous su­per­hero drama Clev­er­man was a joint re­spon­si­bil­ity of ABC Indige­nous and ABC Drama; Black Com­edy is the re­spon­si­bil­ity of ABC Indige­nous alone, not the com­edy depart­ment.

ABC Indige­nous also dou­bles as an in­cu­ba­tor, fast-track­ing screen-ed­u­ca­tion skills for emerg­ing Indige­nous voices. Black Com­edy, for in­stance, teaches pro­fes­sional screen­writ­ing skills on the go. “We have to,” Martin says. “There’s not enough of that crit­i­cal mass [of Indige­nous sto­ry­tellers] with that sketch writ­ing or screen­writ­ing abil­ity to be able to say, ‘We’ll just hire X, Y or Z.’ We have to keep rein­vest­ing in new tal­ent.”

It’s also worth not­ing that if the pub­lic broad­cast­ers don’t pro­duce Indige­nous sto­ries or cast Abo­rig­i­nal and Tor­res Strait Is­lan­der ac­tors, no one will. Out­side the ABC, Aus­tralian tele­vi­sion is still over­whelm­ingly Cau­casian. The same 2016 Screen Aus­tralia re­port that cel­e­brated Indige­nous on-screen pop­u­la­tion par­ity also soberly noted that most Indige­nous char­ac­ters in the sur­vey pe­riod be­tween 2011 and 2015 were con­cen­trated in eight TV shows. Nearly all were ABC pro­grams. Com­mer­cial broad­cast­ers still en­force a white Aus­tralia, whether or not they’re aware of it.

So there is still more work to be done. Sally Ri­ley says Aus­tralia’s big “first con­tact” story is yet to be told on TV. (It’s on its way, she says.) Screen Aus­tralia’s Penny Smal­la­combe adds that 2019 will be the United Na­tions’ In­ter­na­tional Year of Indige­nous Lan­guages, but it’s still rare to hear Indige­nous lan­guages on­screen. It’s also rare to have Indige­nous pro­duc­ers work­ing in the TV in­dus­try, such as Black­fella Films’ Dar­ren Dale. “You can count all the Indige­nous pro­duc­ers on both hands, and that’s sim­ply not enough,” Smal­la­combe says.

There are also very few black peo­ple in po­si­tions of se­nior­ity; Ri­ley notes the ABC board has never had a mem­ber with Indige­nous her­itage. This is par­tic­u­larly cru­cial. “If there’s no one that comes from a cul­tur­ally

di­verse back­ground in the room to bat for you, and take a chance, change just won’t be made,” Smal­la­combe says. “You need your ag­i­ta­tors, you need your al­lies, and you need peo­ple in fund­ing po­si­tions.” Which is to say, you need to do what white TV pro­fes­sion­als have been do­ing since tele­vi­sion started.

Right now, ac­tor Shari Sebbens is 12 weeks into a marathon 17-week shoot for the ABC’s up­com­ing TV show The Heights. (“It’s been 84 years and I’ve got an­other seven ahead of me,” she jokes.) When it goes to air, the pro­gram will rep­re­sent one of the most am­bi­tious TV projects the ABC has un­der­taken in decades: a 30episode soap opera. Un­like com­mer­cial coun­ter­parts, though, The Heights – set in a fic­tional Western Aus­tralian hous­ing com­mis­sion – fea­tures Aus­tralian fam­i­lies from Ira­nian, Viet­namese, An­glo and Abo­rig­i­nal back­grounds. “It’s the most di­verse [cast] we’ve had on Aus­tralian screens,” Sebbens says. “I feel con­fi­dent say­ing that.”

Part of the rea­son might be that The Heights’ pro­duc­tion team is stacked with cul­tur­ally di­verse creatives from the top down. Its co-cre­ators are Viet­namese Aus­tralian (Que Minh Luu) and An­glo Aus­tralian (War­ren Clarke); its ex­ec­u­tive pro­duc­ers are Indige­nous Aus­tralian (the ABC’s Sally Ri­ley) and Chi­nese Aus­tralian (Match­box Pic­tures’ Deb­bie Lee). Pro­duc­ers have brought on first-time screen­writ­ers and ac­tors, and have trained them on the job. Some might ar­gue a show as cul­tur­ally in­clu­sive as The Heights would have even­tu­ally been pro­duced out of “merit”, but is an in­dus­try his­tor­i­cally dom­i­nated by white male gate­keep­ers a mer­i­toc­racy? In the case of The Heights, it took a multi-eth­nic lead­er­ship team to come along to re-eval­u­ate what con­sti­tutes merit in the first place.

Sebbens splits her time be­tween cam­eras and the stage, and feels Aus­tralian TV and film have now sur­passed main­stage the­atre in their pro­fi­ciency and flu­ency in telling black sto­ries. Oth­ers agree. Ear­lier this year, Syd­ney The­atre Com­pany play­wright H. Lawrence Sum­ner – as part of a much big­ger, bruis­ing cri­tique of the in­dus­try – ac­cused the Aus­tralian the­atre in­dus­try of “white­s­plain­ing” and “hi­jack­ing” Indige­nous sto­ries like his. That grenade-drop led to other Indige­nous the­atre prac­ti­tion­ers openly ques­tion­ing why Abo­rig­i­nal stage di­rec­tors aren’t as com­mon as Abo­rig­i­nal stage ac­tors and play­wrights, and whether an Indige­nous na­tional the­atre is needed.

“In a weird way, stage kind of led the charge,” Sebbens says, “but there are still white gate­keep­ers who get to de­cide what black plays are be­ing put on.”

Through­out her ca­reer, Nakkiah Lui’s pres­ence in all-white the­atre rooms oc­ca­sion­ally made her ques­tion whether she was there as a box-tick­ing ex­er­cise. She soon re­alised she’d grown up with peo­ple con­stantly as­sum­ing that of her, re­gard­less of how hard she worked. “So I al­ways took any op­por­tu­nity as an op­por­tu­nity,” she says. “If peo­ple think it’s about box tick­ing, that’s just what they think. Then you prove them wrong. Be bet­ter. Be the best.”

Mi­randa Tapsell agrees. “I know peo­ple say, ‘Well, it’s to­kenis­tic to cast some­one like Mi­randa.’ So I’m al­ways on time. I’m not per­fect, but most of the time I come in and bring my A-game. And I do that be­cause I have to prove that peo­ple saw some­thing in me.” Lui adds that it’s not an ex­clu­sively Indige­nous ex­pe­ri­ence: she knows Aus­tralians from mi­nor­ity back­grounds – mi­grants, for in­stance – can re­late.

“Peo­ple who come from over­seas back­grounds – those are still valid, uniquely Aus­tralian sto­ries,” ABC head of Indige­nous Kel­rick Martin says. “They should be right there, made as much as any other. You see them get up, but they’re never given those op­por­tu­ni­ties the same way the Indige­nous depart­ment is. The Indige­nous way as a model could be in­cred­i­bly suc­cess­ful, but it comes down to sus­tained sup­port. It can’t just be a flavour of the month. You have to have your skin in the game for a very long time.”

Ac­cord­ing to Black­fella Films’ Dar­ren Dale, be­yond pa­tience and en­durance it takes fi­nan­cial com­mit­ment and ab­so­lute will to get sto­ries from queer, cul­tur­ally di­verse and dis­abled per­spec­tives told. “And know­ing whilst they might not suc­ceed at the start, it’s vi­tally im­por­tant if we want to see our­selves as the Aus­tralia we see when we walk down the streets.”

Penny Smal­la­combe adds that it’s about which bosses you ap­proach. She men­tions the SBS show I cre­ated and co-wrote – The Fam­ily Law, which de­picts a

Chi­nese-Aus­tralian fam­ily – as a case in point. “You would’ve never done that if Deb­bie Lee and Tony Ayres weren’t there,” she says of the show’s ex­ec­u­tive pro­duc­ers, who are Chi­nese Aus­tralian. It’s a fair call: that show got made be­cause those pro­duc­ers – who had al­ready forged the way for decades – saw the story’s value, didn’t ques­tion the po­ten­tial au­di­ence and didn’t need cul­tural specifics ex­plained. The in­fra­struc­ture was al­ready in place. Sim­i­larly in the­atre, four ma­jor Asian-Aus­tralian plays pre­miered in 2017: Michelle Law’s Sin­gle Asian Fe­male (La Boite), Chi Vu’s Coloured Aliens (La Mama), Mer­lynn Tong’s Blue Bones (Play­lab at the Bris­bane Pow­er­house) and Dis­apol Savet­sila’s Aus­tralian Graf­fiti (Syd­ney The­atre Com­pany). That only hap­pened be­cause the arts com­pany Con­tem­po­rary Asian Aus­tralian Per­for­mance had been run­ning high-level train­ing and men­tor­ships in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the­atre com­pa­nies across the coun­try.

In the mean­time, Indige­nous sto­ry­tellers are pay­ing it for­ward them­selves. Now that Ri­ley is in charge of all scripted TV at the ABC, her big push is for di­ver­sity across the board. “If I get a script that’s just all white char­ac­ters, I’m like, ‘No, that’s not for us. That’s not Aus­tralia,’” she says.

Smal­la­combe agrees. “En­hanc­ing cul­tural di­ver­sity across all screens – and not just black­fel­las – is some­thing sig­nif­i­cant and im­por­tant for us. We have to con­tinue to change the game with every­one.”

In 2016, Shari Sebbens un­der­took a di­rec­to­rial place­ment for Indige­nous film­mak­ers with Maori film­maker Taika Waititi as he filmed the Hol­ly­wood block­buster

Thor: Rag­narok. It helped dis­til in Sebbens’ mind what she wants to do next: tell a great bunch of ad­ven­ture sto­ries about Aussie kids. “In my mind, that cast is al­ready made up of black kids, Chi­nese kids, Greek kids.” The last thing Sebbens wants to do is make some “all-white

Goonies with a to­ken Chi­nese boy”.

When I speak to Ryan Grif­fen – the cre­ator of

Clev­er­man – he is about to fly to Los An­ge­les to pitch a show with the sup­port of Screen Aus­tralia. Mak­ing TV can be so re­lent­less, he points out, that it’s some­times easy to lose sight of why you’re do­ing it in the first place. You lose sleep. You eat what’s in front of you. You sac­ri­fice phys­i­cal and men­tal health. Hun­dreds of crew mem­bers, ac­tors and mov­ing parts are in­volved in shoot­ing a sin­gle scene. “Half­way through you’re like, ‘Why the fuck am I do­ing this?’”

Then there are mo­ments that re­mind you of why you em­barked on a project in the first place. For Grif­fen, one in­volved Abo­rig­i­nal se­niors who had driven from Tam­worth to a Par­ra­matta prison set to be ex­tras in the show. Their role was to play “hairies” – crea­tures from Gami­la­raay and Bund­jalung mythol­ogy – and Grif­fen came across them in full make-up and pros­thet­ics, hav­ing a yarn. “They were just sit­ting there telling their own sto­ries about hairies, while dressed up as hairies. It was amaz­ing. Some­thing like that hap­pens and it just reen­er­gises you.”

Even the mere pres­ence of mi­nori­ties on­screen is an im­por­tant po­lit­i­cal cor­rec­tive, Grif­fen feels. In this coun­try and be­yond, he notes, big­otry clearly isn’t go­ing any­where. Mi­nor­ity sto­ry­tellers – Indige­nous and oth­er­wise – should not ei­ther. “Racism is such a pow­er­ful beast at the mo­ment,” Grif­fen says. “You only need to see [the re­ac­tion] when they’ve got a black or Asian char­ac­ter in Star Wars – or a woman – and what it does to that fran­chise. Does that mean we don’t keep do­ing it? No.”

“It has been about mo­bil­is­ing your com­mu­nity, and not see­ing each other as a threat,” Sebbens adds. “That’s [the at­ti­tude] the in­dus­try’s built on. Dog eat dog. Every­one’s com­pe­ti­tion. It’s not true. Not every­one has to love or like every­one. But you re­spect each other’s hus­tle.” After all, Sebbens adds, laugh­ing, “You’ve all got a com­mon en­emy.” M

“If I get a script that’s just all white char­ac­ters, I’m like, ‘No, that’s not for us. That’s not Aus­tralia.’”

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