Six high-profile people spend a month face-to-face with indigenous Australia, its problems and culture
No filmmaker in this country has done more to illuminate the indigenous experience than Rachel Perkins and her Blackfella Films production company, which is responsible for not only some of the most incisive social commentary but also attention-grabbing shows such as First Australians, Mabo and Redfern Now.
Two years ago she and fellow producer Darren Dale gave us the controversial First Contact, a three-part series exploring the divide between indigenous Australians and the rest of the nation. It was startling, confronting and sometimes squeamishly diverting. Perkins and Dale created an original format that cleverly borrowed from other factual documentary franchises, aimed at engaging a large audience about indigenous subjects in a wider commercial way, unafraid of broad storytelling strokes and occasional tabloidish stunts.
A starting point was that various studies in race relations had revealed 60 per cent of Australians had little if any personal contact with Aboriginal people. Of those, fully 45 per cent didn’t want to. Perkins and Dale wanted to find a way to address this, to try to understand why so many Australians felt this antipathy or were simply uninterested. The idea was to somehow externalise the issue, to bring into public discussion the sorts of things so many say about our indigenous brothers and sisters in private.
Hosted by the redoubtable Ray Martin, six non-indigenous Australians with strong opinions about indigenous people were immersed in Aboriginal culture for the first time. Beginning at Uluru, the heart of Aboriginal Australia, they were divided several times and taken to places around Australia where there were grave problems and to some where there was also hope. The discussions were frank and often acrimonious; some opinions were horrifying in their offensiveness but they got people talking.
First Contact exceeded expectations. Shown simultaneously on three consecutive nights across SBS’s three channels, SBS One, NITV and SBS Two, it attracted more than 2.2 million viewers, trended No 1 on Twitter in Australia and received national media coverage.
First Contact proved a singular event in the continuing rise of unscripted reality TV in this country, an event of some historical significance, its narrative arc not generated by a script — though segments were mapped out and organised in advance for production reasons — but engineered by rules and situations that created the drama, the participants always remaining authentically themselves. Given the volatile nature of the well-chosen people, as ever in TV, boundaries were fluid.
While the first series took six ordinary people with robust sentiments and dropped them into Aboriginal Australia in a kind of four-week psychodrama, this second instalment pitches together six high-profile Australians. They weren’t easy to find. The producers were after contributors who, while possessing commonly held views about Aboriginal Australia, had little or no direct contact with them.
“One of the key challenges was that relatively few high-profile Australians regularly air their views about Aboriginal people in public,” the producers say in their production notes. “Particularly of course when these views could be seen as being unsympathetic or negative.” But eventually they found them after extensive research and “countless conversations”.
Along the way individual interviews throw up a range of often-repeated opinions. Welfare dependency and personal responsibility are regularly raised, as is the national apology to the Stolen Generations. The significance of culture and language and social problems of alcohol, housing and unemployment are all topics of conversation that provoke passionate views.
Once chosen, the white bus, so prominent in the first series, again takes them to Uluru where Ray Martin is waiting. The participants are singer-songwriter Natalie Imbruglia (“I don’t want to be spoonfed an opinion”), ex-One Nation politician David Oldfield (“Aboriginality is just unnecessary”), TV personality Ian “Dicko” host Ray Martin with participants, from left, David Oldfield, Renae Ayris, Ian ‘Dicko’ Dickson, Natalie Imbruglia, Nicki Wendt and Tom Ballard Dickson (“What happens if I find out I’m just a dirty, big racist?”), comedian Tom Ballard (“We live in a progressive society and a progressive society cares about vulnerable people”), former Miss Universe Australia Renae Ayris (“I’ve been spat on, I’ve been abused — that’s all I’ve seen from them”), and actress Nicki Wendt (“All I know is, I’m in a mall and there’s 20 black guys around me, I’m frightened”).
Martin warns them that for 28 days they will have their perceptions challenged in confronting circumstances and their emotions pushed to the limit. It seems obvious that the conservative Oldfield is going to have the hardest time given his body language and facial reactions to Martin’s spiel, though he’s adamant he is not racist, “not in the way I understand the word”.
At the beginning Oldfield appears at least to have enormous confidence in a set of fixed beliefs but tends to be largely calm and respectful. Wendt, too, is a dark presence as the series gets under way, obviously deeply sceptical of political correctness. But she later admits, “I’ve had racist thoughts about Aboriginal people.” Ayris is a blank canvas but appears deeply conservative. Ballard is an enthusiastic, inquisitive true believer who won’t take a back step, pushing the cause of dialogue, constantly goading Oldfield for his negativity as the episode unfolds, the former politician mostly affably batting it away.
Martin directs them to Kununurra in Western Australia’s Kimberley, where the Aboriginal community is battling depression, alcohol, family violence and suicide. Colin Friels’s propulsive narration provides the links. The six spend a night at the town’s sobering-up shelter, which is staffed by long-suffering, empathetic indigenous health workers, with direct to camera interviews detailing their emerging impressions.
Imbruglia confesses shame and embarrassment at her ignorance; Dicko is delighted to be recognised from the telly but asks some sharp questions; Oldfield looks for confrontation, one local woman accusing him of “getting specific on words”. Even after just a few days Imbruglia is constantly irritated by his style of argument, though it’s obvious he’s far more versed in logical sophistication and complexity.
Self-confessed alcoholic Dicko, who has stopped drinking for the show, brings a very personal and hardline opinion to the sights of the shelter — “If I can do it, anyone can,” he says of abstinence — but soon discovers the situation here is more complex than he expected. And Ballard, the young comedian, is again at loggerheads with Oldfield, which provides some irresistible TV, Oldfield not really the ogre he seems determined to appear to be at times.
This region has one of the highest rates of suicide in the world, and when the six are taken out “on country” to a special lunch to hear families share their stories it becomes emotional, the air surrounding the program full of despair.
The group then goes to one of the most remote places in Australia, the tiny community of Bawaka in the Northern Territory, where the Yolngu people have a connection to the place dating back at least 50,000 years. Oldfield ups the ante when he suggests it’s simply their “weekender”. Imbruglia sighs. “You’re being so negative again — it’s so boring,” she says. “I’m just telling you what I think,” he replies.
The question of who owns the land becomes crucial to the discussion but there are also emotional moments as the participants keep sniping, Oldfield and Ballard still at odds, Imbruglia just shaking her head at Oldfield, who after some reluctance, joins in the various ceremonies and rituals. It’s not long before he goes headto-head with elder Timmy Burarrwanga about a contentious issue — constitutional recognition — but it’s rationalised in a wonderfully emotional sequence of reconciliation between the two. Oldfield is proving to be a strangely affable and very complex contrarian kind of a guy.
First Contact is a fascinating piece of reality TV, part fly-on-the-wall documentary, part current affairs show dealing with the politics of national identity, and part a kind of travel program, all held together by a mesmerising character study. Its style frees us to identify with the participants and situations they encounter.
This time the series is more of a platform too for Aboriginal people to tell their story on their terms and Perkins and Dale use their insider contribution to open the eyes not only of the six locked together but also those of us watching. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, 8.30pm, SBS and NITV.