Law and order television reaches the outback with dramatic timing, writes Graeme Blundell
AMBITIOUS and happily assimilated Aboriginal city lawyer Drew Ellis ( Aaron Pedersen) is the latest newcomer to join the chaotic, constantly compelling world of the Kimberley Circuit Court, a worthy addition to the curriculum vitae of a Canberrabound legal eagle. Or so it seems in this wrenching SBS outback drama series.
Leaving his accomplished blonde wife ( Kirsty Hillhouse) for the world of cattle duffers, petrol sniffers, street drinkers and tribal payback, he joins the Aboriginal Legal Service in the Kimberley region of northwestern Australia. Suddenly the charming, affable Ellis must confront not only the political and personal disempowerment of remote Australia’s indigenous people but his own neglected blackness.
The travelling Circuit Court involves magistrate Peter Lockhart ( Gary Sweet) and his entourage of lawyers and court officials embarking on a regular five- day, 2000km round trip to dispense justice to the almost forgotten Aboriginal communities of the far north.
Harried and often dismayed in their makeshift courts, the officials race through as many cases as possible in the world’s largest jurisdiction, reciting the same lines just to keep the conveyerbelt process moving along in the heat. Plea deals are encouraged and defendants attempting to slow the process are usually given harsher sentences as a deterrent to others.
Like them, the series carries with it a terrible sense of disappointment. The system has been broken for a long time and it will be longer before it’s fixed; regardless of the storm that has descended over Aboriginal Australia in real life — a more bizarre concoction of farce, Damascene conversions, altruism, melodrama and political adventure than any television producer would have attempted.
Justice in The Circuit travels in a layer of fine red dust as the series, almost elegiacally at times, explores the hardship and issues faced by remote indigenous people, especially alcohol abuse, domestic violence and the sexual persecution of the young. .
A devastating subplot focuses on the almost total lack of government support for health, education and child protection. The continual non- arrival of Family and Children’s Services is a Godot- like cosmic joke, ‘‘ the need to feel safe’’ a constant sad mantra.
‘‘ It’s a human drama about people trying to live out their lives in difficult circumstances, with dignity and humour, even if any final victories don’t really shift them too far,’’ says co- creator and script producer Kelly Lefever, who developed the stories of the indigenous writers who contributed. ‘‘ White writers are scared of writing about these issues now. The politically correct line is, of course, that out of respect they are not our stories to tell. But we’ve simply had our arses kicked too many times for doing them so badly.’’
While exposing the underbelly of the outback legal system, The Circuit never resorts to crude polemic, although it is possibly more distressing because of this grim- jawed objectivity. The
occasional moments of typical Aboriginal use of wry, ironic humour that takes the piss out of dogooding authority add even more poignancy.
For all the moral, social and political confrontations the $ 4 million series evokes, The Circuit is made with a kind of devoted tough love that bluntly avoids mawkishness. The six- part series appeals to an almost insatiable consumer fascination for legal theatre, highlighted here by Catriona McKenzie’s visceral direction and piercing sense of place.
She is one of only two indigenous people to have directed mainstream TV drama. Her most recent assignment was the wonderfully articulated RAN, shown on SBS last year and again in repeats that finished last week. It was also shot in difficult circumstances on remote locations, using many untrained actors. ‘‘ Because there’s always a lot of talking and emotion, I wanted to free up the courtroom,’’ McKenzie says of The Circuit .
Joe Pickering’s camerawork energises these scenes, moving in among the characters, sitting with them and, as McKenzie says, ‘‘ breathing with them’’. Pickering goes subjectively to the heart of the drama with rapid zooms and tweaks of focus ( McKenzie calls it a ‘‘ nudge camera’’ style), and a kind of omnipresent hovering presence, which is sometimes compassionate but often foreboding.
The way McKenzie uses the setting for The Circuit also is thrilling, its Aboriginal characters able to read its beauty as native speakers, as it were, in control of its distances and its mysteries.
‘‘ For me, our experience of the landscape is not about expansive emptiness,’’ McKenzie says.
‘‘ It is about our close emotional relationship to the country and I wanted to play with the landscape’s intimacy by playing with the detail. The ants are having their own drama, as are the sea urchins; the human stories are simply part of the whole story.’’
Pedersen’s Drew Ellis shows how far local TV has come in its portrayal of indigenous Australians. Though he has championed their changing representation with a gallery of intelligent and often confronting performances, Ellis is his most enduring. And Sweet is as good as he has been, his Lockhart able to embrace the finer things with the Broome aristocracy but unable to get down in the red Kimberley dirt.
Kelton Pell, too, is charismatic as ALS liaison officer Sam Wallan, strident, articulate and genuinely menacing. In a polished TV debut, Tammy Clarkson is touching as court clerk Bella Noble, who also fronts the band at Broome’s Roebuck Bay Hotel. Tired- eyed Marta Kaczmarek is impressive as the slightly bedraggled, heavy- smoking legal aid lawyer Ellie Zdybicka.
Courts have immediate effects that are emphatically real — imprisonment or freedom — and are premised on the achievability of an objective truth and the success of rationality. But, as The Circuit demonstrates so dramatically, when truth and reasoning are contingent rather than objective, the legal system experiences crisis.
Helen Garner, in her portrayal of a white sexual harassment court case, The First Stone , wrote of her fantasy that there might exist some forum outside the harsh rules of evidence that excises context; some less rule- bound gathering of the tribe: ‘‘ a forum in which everything might be said, everybody listened to; where bursts of laughter and shouts of rage might not be outlawed; where, if people agreed to take turns, everyone might at last, at last, be heard’’.
The Circuit, Sunday, 9.30pm, SBS.