Aaron’s lands

As a proud Ar­rernte–Ara­bana man, ac­tor Aaron Ped­er­sen be­lieves that through his work and pro­file he can make in­roads into unit­ing Aus­tralia.

The Saturday Paper - - Diary - By Steve Dow.

“We’re the only

coun­try in the Com­mon­wealth that doesn’t have a treaty. It’s ridicu­lous.”

Aaron Ped­er­sen

A wooden cross. A brass plaque. An oval black-and-white por­trait photo shows Daphne Mary Hele as a smil­ing young woman. In 1948, the Catholic Pres­bytery of

Alice Springs had granted the then Daphne McDowall per­mis­sion to marry Dud­ley Hele. “Both are half-castes,” reads the cor­re­spon­dence, now in the Na­tional Archives. “Daphne was reared in the Half­caste In­sti­tu­tion.”

The marriage “will be a good thing”, reas­sures the church’s note, in its state-backed pa­ter­nal­is­tic as­sump­tion of power over a con­struc­tion of racial hi­er­ar­chy.

Daphne died in 1997. Years later, in Sydney, Ar­rernte–Ara­bana ac­tor Aaron Ped­er­sen and one of his younger broth­ers, Vin­nie, who has an in­tel­lec­tual dis­abil­ity, pieced to­gether the wooden me­mo­rial marker to place on their ma­ter­nal grand­mother’s grave. Ped­er­sen flew to Alice Springs to hon­our their beloved nan with the marker.

He re­flects now on his grand­par­ents’ re­quire­ment to seek ap­proval of their union, stem­ming from Aus­tralia’s “white prob­lem”: a “Queen’s cur­ricu­lum”, he says, founded on the lie of terra nul­lius, the le­gal doc­trine, fi­nally over­turned in the 1992 Mabo High Court judge­ment, that the land was un­oc­cu­pied be­fore Cap­tain Cook’s arrival wrought the vi­o­lence of fron­tier wars.

Yet still to­day, many non-Indige­nous peo­ple have failed to make first con­tact with an Indige­nous per­son, says Ped­er­sen. “No­body owns any­body,” he says. “We only have the right to help each other en­joy this time we have to­gether.”

The ac­tor is sit­ting on the mez­za­nine of the foyer of Mel­bourne’s Malt­house The­atre, eat­ing a vegetarian fo­cac­cia. He has a big pres­ence, sparks with en­ergy. The 46-year-old is buff: grey T-shirt over red sin­glet and a denim shirt tied around his waist, a grey woollen beanie pulled down over his hair. The­atre fit, all the better for a sin­gleted, sen­sual on-stage fris­son with per­former Ur­sula Yovich, his long-time friend. Their phys­i­cal­ity is mag­netic.

In a few hours, Ped­er­sen will hit the stage for a new two-han­der Australian road trip play, Heart

Is a Waste­land, along­side Yovich, a fel­low North­ern Ter­ri­tory-born Indige­nous ac­tor. By chance, there’s a large Abo­rig­i­nal flag af­fixed to the wall above the couch where he’s seated.

“I’ve said to John [Har­vey, the writer], ‘What about mak­ing this into a film?’” The ac­tor laughs, and con­tin­ues: “Try­ing to get my­self a job.” On the ev­i­dence of the play, a film adap­ta­tion seems apt.

Ped­er­sen re­cently sep­a­rated from pro­ducer Sarah Bond, his long-time part­ner. Born in Alice Springs, Ped­er­sen and his seven sib­lings con­stantly moved be­tween their mother, Mar­garet, who was an al­co­holic, and foster homes.

There was do­mes­tic vi­o­lence, and, for Ped­er­sen at least, night­mares. In the 2006 doc­u­men­tary My Brother Vin­nie, Ped­er­sen said of their mother: “She had a hard life, but that’s no ex­cuse. I’m sorry.”

Vin­nie is well and in Sydney with a carer, although Ped­er­sen has of­ten been Vin­nie’s carer, among ded­i­cated others. “He makes me laugh,” beams Ped­er­sen.

“My brother Vin­nie lives in the spirit world, so

I get a chance to hang out with him there, you know?

I can be what­ever I want. I can be an id­iot. We muck around and play air gui­tar and dif­fer­ent in­stru­ments. We do it in the street, in the car. It just light­ens the spirit up. We can be broth­ers to­gether on so many dif­fer­ent lev­els. He’s a rat­bag.”

Ped­er­sen has been in act­ing work since his ca­reer took off in the se­ries Heart­land, in 1994, fol­low­ing seven years as a TV jour­nal­ist, trained at the ABC’s for­mer Mel­bourne stu­dios at Rip­pon­lea. In his lat­est fea­ture, Killing Ground, the di­rec­to­rial de­but of Damien Power, he plays Ger­man, one of a pair of men who ter­rorise white hol­i­day­mak­ers at a camp­ing ground where a mas­sacre of Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple once took place.

While the film’s Gungilee Falls lo­ca­tion is a fic­ti­tious place, the ac­tual lo­ca­tion is Mac­quarie

Fields, 42 kilo­me­tres south-west of Sydney, and about 26 kilo­me­tres by road from Ap­pin where, in April 1816, army cap­tain James Wal­lis recorded in his jour­nal 14 Indige­nous men, women and chil­dren be­ing shot or fall­ing to their deaths from the heights around Cataract River. The toll is al­most cer­tainly an un­der­re­port­ing.

Gover­nor Mac­quarie had or­dered three de­tach­ments of sol­diers into the NSW in­te­rior to “pun­ish the Hos­tile Na­tives, by Clear­ing the coun­try of them en­tirely, and driv­ing them across the moun­tains”, as well as to shoot re­sis­tors and hang their bodies from trees “in or­der to strike the greater ter­ror into Sur­vivors”.

Ped­er­sen’s role was not orig­i­nally writ­ten as an Indige­nous one, but his cast­ing un­der­scores the nev­erend­ing cy­cle of killing; that the tox­i­c­ity of the land has in­fected the spir­its of peo­ple while campers blithely pitch their tents on a ceme­tery. This is no sim­ple thril­lkill hor­ror flick.

Ped­er­sen per­formed in chore­og­ra­pher Stephen Page’s fea­ture film de­but, Spear, play­ing Sui­cide Man, a char­ac­ter dis­pos­sessed of his coun­try who has turned to the bot­tle. The film was re­leased in 2015.

“I lost a brother, just be­fore play­ing Sui­cide Man,” the ac­tor says now, cir­cum­spect on the de­tails. “We came from bro­ken homes. It was a hard life, for sure. Lot of men I’ve known in my time. It’s the way the world is.

“Al­co­hol for me, I don’t see the point in it. I’ll have a light beer, but that’s very rarely. I’m not one for drink­ing or so­cial­is­ing on that level. You’ve got to be drunk to en­joy drunks, you know? I think it’s one of the sad­dest things in this coun­try.” His voice drops, per­plexed. “This coun­try’s al­ways drunk. Drinks for the sun­down, drinks for pay­day. Drinks be­cause there’s some sport­ing event.

“I’m not a sup­porter of it. I never have been. I just think you’re stronger when you have your wits about you, you know? That’s just a personal thing, be­cause I’ve grown up around it. Bro­ken homes and stuff. So, I’ve seen the de­struc­tion. A lot of peo­ple seem to drink if they’re happy or they’re sad. And also, I’m al­ler­gic to al­co­hol any­way, which I like. It makes the choices very easy.”

I ask him what can be done about the epi­demic of Indige­nous sui­cide and high Indige­nous in­car­cer­a­tion rates. “A treaty, bro,” he says. “Let’s get on the real page.

“I strongly be­lieve your at­ti­tudes and your be­liefs of who you are comes from how you treat your Indige­nous peo­ple. We’re the only coun­try in the Com­mon­wealth that doesn’t have a treaty. It’s ridicu­lous. What are they scared of ?

“Why don’t you just try that? It might work. Ac­tu­ally, it will work. It’s not about money. You’ve got no idea how much that would change this coun­try, and how it will make us uni­fied, and be­come very real to­wards each other.

“You know, we don’t have a black prob­lem in this coun­try, Steve. We’ve got a white prob­lem. How many know black­fel­las in this coun­try? Not many. How many as­so­ciate with them? That’s the prob­lem. What are their at­ti­tudes to­wards black­fel­las? Well, it’s pro­pa­ganda and the Queen’s cur­ricu­lum; they’re all neg­a­tives.”

Ped­er­sen hopes through his art, at least, to be­come some non-Indige­nous peo­ple’s point of first con­tact – to maybe even move them emo­tion­ally, into con­ver­sa­tions and unity with Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple.

He wants to in­spire other bud­ding Indige­nous ac­tors, too. When Ped­er­sen was star­ring in Water Rats, he con­ducted drama work­shops at Dar­win High School. Par­tak­ing were stu­dents Miranda Tapsell and Shari Sebbens, who each went on to launch ca­reers in the film The Sap­phires, the TV se­ries Red­fern Now and a string of stage roles.

On screen is the coun­try, and the dance. There is the land, the wind, the trees. The si­lence is the sound­track, too: peo­ple’s be­hav­iour and mo­tives then be­come clearer. Col­lab­o­rat­ing with di­rec­tor Ivan Sen by play­ing flawed con­tem­po­rary Indige­nous cop Jay Swan, Aaron Ped­er­sen’s movies Mys­tery Road and Gold­stone al­most be­come chore­ographed sen­sory pieces, against stun­ning or­ange sun­sets of the Cen­tral West Queens­land plains.

A black child on a bi­cy­cle in Mys­tery Road aims two fin­gers, gun-bar­rel-like, at Jay Swan’s cow­boy-hat­ted head and warns: “We hate cop­pers, bro. We kill cop­pers, bro.” A decade ear­lier, in Broome in the West Australian Kim­ber­ley, Ped­er­sen’s Indige­nous lawyer Drew El­lis rep­re­sented re­mote black­fel­las at court in the twosea­son, all too short-lived SBS se­ries The Cir­cuit. El­lis was charged by a lo­cal at the pub as be­ing white in­side: “He’s a lawyer, ’course he’s a co­conut.”

As a vis­i­tor act­ing on others’ lands, it is im­por­tant to Ped­er­sen he first be wel­comed to coun­try. He asked per­mis­sion of el­der Pearl Eatts to walk on land in

Win­ton to play Jay Swan. Broome, on the other hand, was eas­ier, given his youngest brother lives there, rais­ing some of Ped­er­sen’s nieces and neph­ews.

Is it dif­fi­cult, play­ing author­ity fig­ures that some Indige­nous peo­ple may see as op­pres­sors? “I wouldn’t be a cop in real life. It’s a hard job any­way, but as an Indige­nous per­son: whoa, man, would that be hard.” Play­ing the role is cathar­tic, says Ped­er­sen. “Look, Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple, we’re all hard on each other: our at­ti­tudes to­wards how we might present our­selves and what jobs to choose. I try to play all those char­ac­ters as sim­ple as pos­si­ble: what the right headspace is.

“If you can al­low the good per­son to shine through, peo­ple un­der­stand maybe what your jour­ney’s about. Jay, be­ing a cop­per, he’s got to re­main strong to him­self, but he’s also got a fine line be­tween them and us, whether you’re a black­fella or not. I like the fact it com­pli­cates a lot of things. In Mys­tery Road, he’s do­ing the right thing, so that’s where I try to play the char­ac­ter from: what is right.”

By con­trast, he worked Ger­man in Killing

Ground “from the ground up”, try­ing not to over­think the char­ac­ter’s men­ac­ing mo­tives after a few hours’ dis­cus­sion in pre­pro­duc­tion. “The whole tex­ture of the Killing Ground sto­ry­line was: this land is sick, and un­til we heal it, un­til we talk about it, un­til we ac­knowl­edge that stuff, then the sick­ness will con­tinue.”

Ped­er­sen will explore Swan again when a six-part ABC Mys­tery Road se­ries goes into pro­duc­tion soon, di­rected by Rachel Perkins (Bran Nue Dae, Jasper Jones, Red­fern Now), to pre­miere in 2018. Judy Davis has been cast as a fel­low cop, which Ped­er­sen says is “pretty cool”, while Perkins is a “mover and shaker. She means busi­ness, and that’s a good thing.”

De­tec­tive Swan – like lawyer Drew El­lis in The Cir­cuit be­fore him – is try­ing to find his iden­tity, his home, where he be­longs, as Ur­sula Yovich, play­ing

Maria, the daugh­ter of Jimmy (David Gulpilil) in Gold­stone, reas­sures him: “This mob? It’s your mob. This land, you be­long to it.”

Ped­er­sen is in touch with his sur­viv­ing broth­ers and sis­ters. “We’re all fight­ing the war of at­ti­tudes, pol­icy and leg­is­la­tion, and it will take gen­er­a­tions for things to be­come stronger. But it’s a start­ing point, to rise from the ashes and make the next gen­er­a­tion better than the last. They’re im­por­tant to me, my broth­ers and sis­ters, nieces and neph­ews, un­cles and aun­ties. That’s all I got, re­ally. If I don’t have them, I’ve got noth­ing.”

Did he ever know who his dad was? “No, not re­ally, no. I pur­sued a cou­ple of [in­quiries] but, yeah, didn’t re­ally come up with any­thing. I’ve just let it go be­cause at the end of the day, who knows if it’s go­ing to be ben­e­fi­cial to me? I’m okay, I’ve been my own father in my own way. Who says it’s go­ing to be a pos­i­tive? No­body knows. So I just pre­fer to leave it the way it is, be­cause it could be some­thing I wish I’d never gone down.”

Is he still alive? “I’ve got no idea, brother. I sup­pose my life would have been dif­fer­ent had he been in my life, but that’s just me sec­ond-guess­ing it all. I’m okay with the fact he’s not there, and I don’t think I’d open that door.”

Did he ever for­give Mar­garet, his mother? “To­tally, yeah. Look, me and Mum talk all the time now. It’s great, be­cause she’s a lot health­ier now. She doesn’t drink any­more. She stopped. She’s my hero.

“She’s al­ways been proud of me. That’s al­ways been a hard one. I was tough on my­self, and I was tough on her. I’m re­ally proud of where she’s at now. I’m my mother’s son, and she’s a fighter, man. She fought her way through this world.

“I’ve just eased up on my­self. I had to step back and re­alise: I’m a priv­i­leged gen­er­a­tion. I’m grate­ful Mum sur­vived. I just know now our times on the phone, our times of dis­tant con­ver­sa­tion, are all filled

• with laugh­ter.”

STEVE DOW is a Syd­ney­based arts writer and the au­thor of Gay: The Tenth An­niver­sary Col­lec­tion.

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