June 2015

Arts & Letters

History wars

By Steve Dow
Adapting Kate Grenville’s ‘The Secret River’ for the screen

“Yeah, that’s right!” yells a tall, bearded former convict wearing a green vest, brown pants and knee-high boots. He is standing at the bottom of a valley, in long grass surrounded by gum trees, waving a rifle. Two film crews for the television adaptation of The Secret River track the scene with cameras mounted on wheels. “We build things and we grow ’em ’ere – not like you, ya lazy buggers, struttin’ around like gentry with yer balls hangin’ out!”

Halfway up the hill, two dozen black men, women and children, all holding wooden spears, slowly retreat from the armed white man. Their leader, Grey Beard to the whites and Gumang in his Dharuk tongue, turns and mocks him.

William Thornhill, who is loosely based on novelist Kate Grenville’s great-great-great-grandfather Solomon Wiseman, is edging closer to frontier murder.

Grenville has no evidence her emancipated convict forefather had contact with indigenous Australians when he built his villa on the Hawkesbury River in New South Wales; she just has suspicions, which she explored in her 2006 Booker-shortlisted novel, about how he “took up” land. A few years earlier, he had been shipped from London to Sydney Cove for stealing timber. In 1810, he was a free man, raising two children with his wife.

Thornhill roars. “This is my place, ya hear me? My place!” He spits in fury: “There’s more of us comin’ every day. You’ve got no ’ope, ya hear me? No ’ope!”

Cut. On the hill, indigenous extras for this three-hour, two-part adaptation burst into laughter at British actor Oliver Jackson-Cohen’s “bugger off” lines. Frances Djulibing, who appeared in Charlie’s Country, sits with her sisters, all from Ramingining in Arnhem Land. It is cold on this Gippsland set, east of Melbourne, and there aren’t enough of the specially made skins (from legally exterminated New Zealand possums) for all the female extras. The sisters refuse to go bare-breasted.

Finally, another skin becomes available, and Djulibing joins in the third take. “The Aboriginal people have to keep the sacred sites safe, instead of the colonists entering the sacred ground,” Djulibing says to explain the Aboriginal characters’ resistance, before she moves into shot.

Producers Stephen Luby and Mark Ruse obtained screen rights to The Secret River in 2007 and planned to make a feature with director Fred Schepisi and screenwriter Jan Sardi. Many drafts later – and six years chasing big names to play Thornhill and his wife Sal – the project was still in limbo. The lauded 2013 stage adaptation by Neil Armfield, Andrew Bovell and Stephen Page for Sydney Theatre Company piqued the interest of ABC TV executive producers. Schepisi bowed out, not wanting to make TV, and director Daina Reid and co-writer Mac Gudgeon stepped in.

Funding from Film Victoria required the production be based in Victoria. So while some scenes have been shot on the Hawkesbury, much of the filming takes place on a largely pristine bushland estate at Lake Tyers, East Gippsland.

This winter morning, the actor Trevor Jamieson, who plays Grey Beard/Gumang (Whisker Harry in the novel), assembles the indigenous actors for a diplomatic briefing in a tent. Born in Perth, and from the Spinifex people of the Central Desert, Jamieson tells the actors, of clans from around Australia, that some performers and the local mob have been uneasy there has not yet been a “proper welcome” to country, even though filming has begun. Dancing without permission from the people of the land risks disturbing the local ancestral spirit called the “hairy man”, and “we don’t want to upset him by waking him up”.

He introduces custodian Wayne Thorpe of the Gunaikurnai people, to whom the Federal Court granted native title over 22,000 square kilometres of Gippsland in 2010. “We want this country to feel good about who you are,” Thorpe reassures the indigenous performers.

Thorpe builds a fire where a corroboree is to be filmed. He places fresh gum leaves on the burning wood, then invites the entire cast and crew forward, indigenous and non-indigenous, to guide smoking leaves down each person. Kookaburras in the trees above break into a chorus, and quickly fall silent: the ancestors have been called, says Thorpe.

In the evening, waiting to play the scene in which his character happens upon and secretly observes the corroboree, Jackson-Cohen considers his own cultural discovery. “The worst thing is, in the UK, we’re not taught about this in schools. All we know, and it’s quite shocking, is we sent a bunch of convicts to Australia.”

Kate Grenville refers to the euphemistic “dispersal” of Aboriginal people as a “guerrilla war”. Henry Reynolds, in his 2013 book Forgotten War, says some 2500 settlers died in more than a century of conflict, while “steeply upwards to 30,000 [indigenous people] and beyond, perhaps well beyond” were killed. The Australian War Memorial recognises none of it. Considering the Hall of Valour for Victoria Cross winners, Reynolds writes: “Are we to suppose that in their resistance to settler-invaders, Aborigines did not display comparable bravery?”

In a make-up truck, Jamieson, painted in white ochre for dancing, says: “The Secret River is about people becoming displaced. It’s not the fault of the people from London who had to steal a loaf of bread to feed their families; chucked on a boat to be sent down to a new penal colony. I empathise with a lot of those people.

“I hope this gets people to understand the rules and laws [came] from Britain on a boat. Here in Australia, we have a structure that’s been there for thousands of years. How come people don’t know how to say ‘hello’ in Dharuk? Australia is still learning not to be racist, but it is a racist country.”

He’s rehearsed the upcoming massacre scene. His bold brown eyes focus determinedly. “I can’t break down in front of the mob, because I need to show leadership. Afterwards, we can talk about it. Then have a good cry.”

Two days later, north of Melbourne above Plenty Gorge, the country of the Wurundjeri-willam, Tim Minchin takes a seat on a park bench. Made up to play Smasher Sullivan, he looks ragged and aged. Sullivan is an angry northern Irish man who leads the white man’s murderous violence, and keeps an indigenous woman in chains as a sex slave.

The actor and singer-songwriter sees “white-inherited guilt” as “pointless” of itself, but “useful as a doorway to further understanding … most Australians, sadly, don’t have any exposure to Aboriginal Australia; most whitefellas I know have never met an Aboriginal person. Like all divides in races or cultures, it is only proximity that is lacking.”

Ningali Lawford, who starred in Rabbit-Proof Fence, joins us. “There were massacres all over this country that haven’t been spoken about,” she says. “This country was taken over by genocide. I’m lucky; my mob, from where I’m from, the Kimberley, didn’t get whitefellas come for a very long time.”

Maurial Spearim’s people come from north-west New South Wales and across the Queensland border. This afternoon, over and over, she will have to act being murdered: “It might seem everyone’s a bit chilled,” she says, but what they’re about to re-create is starting to hit home.

Standing by the stringybark hut of Thomas Blackwood, a white settler who integrates and learns from the indigenous people, production designer Herbert Pinter is in front of a machine for puffing smoke out of the chimney, and a long hose to disperse dawn mist. He is happy with the locations, but unhappy with production limitations. “It shouldn’t matter if it’s television,” he says. “The definition is a lot clearer [now] and you can see every little mistake. But our budgets are smaller. A lot of young people in the crews … you feel they don’t know history. The pre-production time was so ludicrous you couldn’t teach people.”

Trevor Jamieson calls together all the cast – white, who will kill, and black, who will be killed – in a circle in the valley.

“If you want to feel the emotion, go for it,” he says. “What I ask is, after boss woman [director Reid] says ‘cut’, we hug each other. Because it’s hurting me, and [one bloke] is crying because he cannot do the scene.” He’s referring to Angus Pilakui (Long Bob), who was overcome in the previous day’s rehearsal. “All us blackfellas, we’re going to be dying today, on the grounds of another [Wurundjeri-willam] country. We’re going to have to do that for Darug [people].”

But Jamieson is also worried about the toll on the “balanda”, the white actors. “So make sure we come up to them afterwards and say, ‘Are you all right?’”

Cockatoos screech overhead. Muskets, powder horns, swords, rifles and knives are distributed to the party of whitefellas for the dawn raid on the half-dozen humpies outside Blackwood’s hut. Minchin, as Sullivan, leads the creeping group in a long grey coat; Jackson-Cohen, as Thornhill, in yellow vest and burgundy pants, follows in the party’s slipstream.

Bang! Sullivan’s gun goes off. Screams. More shots. Black bodies stumble and fall.

In the director’s tent, the television monitor shows Thornhill’s face in close-up. “Will!” the confused settler hears from a white compatriot. Instinctively, Thornhill puts his rifle to his shoulder and fires. His eyes widen at the shock, as though the white blindfold of history has been ripped away.

The Secret River screens on 11 June at the Sydney Film Festival and on 14 and 21 June on the ABC.

Steve Dow

Steve Dow is the 2020 Walkley arts journalism award recipient.


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