PREJ­U­DICE CON­FRONTED

Six high-pro­file peo­ple spend a month face-to-face with in­dige­nous Aus­tralia, its prob­lems and cul­ture

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Television - Graeme Blun­dell First Con­tact,

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.

First Con­tact

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