October 2018


A golden age of popular Indigenous storytelling

By Benjamin Law
Image of Nakkiah Lui

Nakkiah Lui. Photograph by Ana Cuba

Against the blinding whiteness on Australian stage and screens

Let’s rewind to 1992. Hey Dad..! and Burke’s Backyard still passed for wholesome Australian family TV. Bruce Samazan and Georgie Parker were big, as were Fast Forward, Brides of Christ, E Street, G.P. and Agro. Effie had big hair, Larry Emdur still had hair and Ray Martin’s was the same. Drawcard guests at the Logies that year included John Stamos from Full House, English actor Dennis Waterman and former prime minister Bob Hawke, who was pretty chipper given Paul Keating had rolled him only months before. The biggest scandal that year? Gold Logie winner Jana Wendt not claiming her gong in person.

Looking back, though, the bigger scandal was really the blinding whiteness. Logies attendees in 1992 were as Anglo as the industry itself. As head of Indigenous for Screen Australia Penny Smallacombe points out, if you were a black actor who passed for white in 1992, you’d probably have kept the fact you were Indigenous to yourself. Dozens of Indigenous performers – from Justine Saunders to Ernie Dingo – had acted in Australian TV drama and comedy for years by then, but no known black actors were in any lead or ongoing roles in any dramas or comedies that year.

Around this time, filmmaker and Arrernte woman Rachel Perkins – then in her 20s – was working as an executive producer at SBS. Most Indigenous Australian TV programming consisted of magazine-format factual shows; Perkins wanted to aim higher. “Not to detract from the importance of those shows,” she says. “A lot of us built our careers making them and a lot of Australians learnt from them, but it was a case of low aspirations.” Perkins had more ambitious ideas to pitch: a prestige Indigenous drama, an Indigenous sketch comedy, and getting the NSW Koori Knockout rugby league competition on air. None got the green light. (“Not big enough, no one cares, why would we do that?” is what she recalls hearing about the NSW Koori Knockout.) Frustrated, Perkins left the broadcaster to start her own production company.

Fast forward to this year and ABC TV’s Mystery Road – directed by Perkins, and starring big-name Indigenous actors such as Aaron Pedersen, Deborah Mailman and Wayne Blair – scores 786,000 viewers in overnight capital city viewers alone. It even thumps nearly all of the commercial competition, including the hyped Channel 7 tell-all interview with Barnaby Joyce and Vikki Campion. Australian critics favourably compare Mystery Road to Fargo; The New York Times declares it one of their picks of 2018 so far.

“That’s the sweet spot for me, that show,” says the ABC’s head of scripted production, Sally Riley, the first Indigenous person at the ABC to oversee all comedy and drama. “It’s diverse, it’s Indigenous, it’s really Australian. But it works overseas, having Judy Davis. It’s the full package for me. Right on charter and it hit an audience.”

Indigenous people aren’t just invited to the Logies now; they’re winning them. Miranda Tapsell has two; Deborah Mailman has four. Perkins’ ideas that were rejected in the early ’90s have since become hits for other Indigenous TV producers, directors and broadcasters. The NSW Koori Knockout is NITV’s biggest annual broadcast event. ABC TV’s Black Comedy began airing its third series last month, and a fourth season is already in development. Prestige Indigenous dramas such as Redfern Now – which Perkins co-directed and her company Blackfella Films produced – have been both popular and critical hits. “We’re seeing all that work come to fruition,” Perkins says, exhaling happily. “Deeply satisfying.”

The “we” Perkins refers to are the dozens of tight-knit Indigenous professionals now working in every sector of Australia’s film, TV and stage industries – from funding organisations to training schools, independent production companies and broadcasters. They include people such as Wal Saunders – who founded the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Programme at the Australian Film Commission (AFC), which is now Screen Australia’s Indigenous Department – and Smallacombe, who runs that department now; directors such as Warwick Thornton and Ivan Sen; actors such as Tapsell, Rarriwuy Hick and Shari Sebbens; screenwriters such as Ryan Griffen and Briggs; and actor-writer-director triple threats like Leah Purcell, Nakkiah Lui and Wayne Blair. Some wonder if we’ve reached the golden age of popular Indigenous storytelling. Tapsell refers to it as a blackout.

Whatever you call it, in one generation Australian TV went from a near-total whitewash to Indigenous Australians having their real-world population reflected proportionately on screen. No other Australian minority group has come close. Canada’s peak screen funding body has been so impressed it has replicated Screen Australia’s model for its own First Nations filmmakers.

As members of the oldest human civilisation, Indigenous Australians clearly have a cultural imperative in telling their stories. At the same time, they feel there are important lessons that queer, culturally diverse and disabled Australians – all still vastly under-represented on screen and stage – can learn from the Indigenous model. How did #BlackExcellence happen on Australian TV? “Well, it hasn’t come from people having it handed to them,” Tapsell says. Which is to say, it hasn’t happened by accident.

Over breakfast in Sydney’s Chippendale, Nakkiah Lui is trying to convince me she’s actually slowing down right now. After directing or writing three mainstage theatre productions (an Indigenous version of the American play An Octoroon, and her own plays Blackie Blackie Brown and Black Is the New White) and writing and starring in a TV show (ABC TV’s Kiki and Kitty) in the space of a year, Lui’s version of “slowing down” involves writing another play for the Sydney Theatre Company (“well, my main play, and [another] commission”); writing her first feature film; developing a new TV show; penning a book for Allen & Unwin; and co-hosting her podcast with Miranda Tapsell. There’s also a separate mystery project (for “fun”). Lui’s concept of “time off” involves heading to Europe for a month so she can finish writing her book.

You can see why Good Weekend proclaimed Lui (a self-described “fat kid from Mount Druitt who didn’t know anyone in this industry”) the next David Williamson. It’s seductive to think Australia is so progressive that our appointed voice of a generation can go from a middle-class white man to a working-class, Gamilaraay and Torres Strait Islander woman. But comparisons seem unfair. After all, Williamson was 28 when his first play debuted. By the same age, Lui had penned half a dozen plays, and had written and co-starred in her own TV show. Lui says she is flattered by the comparison, but also notes, “Maybe David Williamson was the first Nakkiah Lui.”

Lui is upfront about the fact her work wouldn’t exist were it not for the infrastructure Indigenous people had set up years before she arrived. In 2012, the same year Lui was finishing her law degree, she won the Australia Council’s inaugural Dreaming Award and the Balnaves Foundation Indigenous Playwright’s Award, each worth $20,000.

Lui only started working in TV because Sally Riley, who was ABC’s head of Indigenous at the time, sent an open call-out for Black Comedy: Are you a blackfella who thinks you’re funny? It changed Lui’s life. “There’s real strength and solidarity in the Aboriginal community in the industry at the moment,” she says. “And there’s been such a history of work preceding me.”

Part of that history can be traced to Wal Saunders’ founding of what is now Screen Australia’s Indigenous department 25 years ago. Saunders says that before the early ’90s there was almost an unwritten rule that no Aboriginal person – or any person of colour – could sell butter on TV. “Only white people did,” he says. “Every Aboriginal character you saw was either a drunk, or a woman who got raped or bashed. This is how we were typecast. And it got a lot of people very angry.”

The racism Saunders encountered in the industry was sometimes overt, sometimes institutional. Often it was both. In the 1980s, Saunders – alongside Indigenous agitators, writers and performers such as Bob Maza and Justine Saunders – was part of a screen advisory panel at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. Part of the job involved collating archival Indigenous footage at the ABC. Saunders was astounded at notations ABC staff had made in the archival documentation, some of which casually referred to Indigenous Australians as “Abos”.

While Australian theatre and media organisations went about establishing Indigenous departments and initiatives, the screen industry was – as Saunders puts it – made up of “lone rangers not doing a bloody thing”. Part of Saunders’ challenge in setting up the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Programme at the AFC was pre-empting arguments that it wasn’t necessary. In seminars with key stakeholders, Saunders replicated the “blue eyes, brown eyes” exercise pioneered by American anti-racism activist Jane Elliott, in which people are segregated by eye colour and real-world discrimination is replicated in a controlled environment. “We had them howling, crying and arguing – everything,” Saunders says. “Then everyone really knew. There were no questions asked.”

To begin with, though, there was no funding besides Saunders’ salary and on-costs. Using equal parts diplomacy and agitation (“I made it sound like they were missing the boat”), Saunders convinced the AFC to fund workshops where six Indigenous writer-directors would ultimately make their own short films. It was expensive – at least $50,000 or more, Saunders reckons. However, students included a young Warwick Thornton, who has since won Best Film twice at the prestigious Asia Pacific Screen Awards, for Samson & Delilah and Sweet Country.

Fellow student Richard Frankland’s No Way To Forget won Best Short Film at the 1996 AFI Awards and was selected for Un Certain Regard at Cannes. Saunders still has a photo from the trip to France. “It’s glorious,” he says. “Myself, my mother and Richard – and the three of us are standing there, just after the award. None of us are looking at the camera. We’re looking at ourselves and we’ve got these beaming grins.”

By the time Riley took over Saunders’ role at the AFC in 2000, prestige American TV shows such as The Sopranos and The West Wing were changing how we watched – and what we expected from – scripted television.

“To get our work to a bigger audience, I knew television was where we were going,” Riley says. “With TV, you can develop a character and storyline. You can tell big, big stories.” When she started as the ABC’s head of Indigenous a decade later, Riley went in with a clear mission statement: to make popular Indigenous shows for all Australians. Redfern Now, The Gods of Wheat Street, 8MMM Aboriginal Radio, Cleverman and Black Comedy were all produced on her watch.

Redfern Now was the big turning point. Riley had admired British TV drama The Street and saw how the ABC could use the same anthology format to showcase contemporary Indigenous Australian stories. Riley emailed The Street’s creator Jimmy McGovern, who subsequently worked on Redfern Now as story producer alongside Riley, fellow executive producer Erica Glynn, Blackfella Films’ Darren Dale and Miranda Dear, and a gun team of creatives that included Rachel Perkins.

To launch the first series, in 2013, the ABC held a big outdoor screening at the Block in Redfern, complete with ice-cream trucks. They had expected the thousands of locals who showed up, but were surprised to see white people arriving from the posh North Shore. “There was such a celebration around it,” Riley says. “All of the staff at the ABC felt ownership of the show, which was really wonderful.”

Still, some senior ABC staff were anxious. Riley had to fight to ensure Redfern Now got a prime-time slot. “People were terrified,” she says. The anxiety was contagious.

Producer Dale says securing prime time meant all eyes were on them. “That’s when you’re kind of biting your nails, white-knuckled, thinking, Is this going to work?

The day after Redfern Now premiered, Riley was driving with her son when a colleague rang with the overnight ratings: 749,000 viewers. The show would go on to average 1.1 million viewers – the kind of numbers reality-TV finals often get. “I just had to pull the car over,” Riley says. “I was screaming, then got on the phone with Darren, and then Erica. We were just going crazy.”

Dale remembers the phone call well; it made him leap out of bed. “One of the most thrilling, career-defining moments I can remember,” he says.

Redfern Now would go on to win four Logies and five Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts (AACTA) awards, and sell overseas. Given Indigenous Australians account for roughly 3 per cent of the population, it clearly wasn’t just them watching. “It was amazing,” Riley says. “People came to our show. It felt like we’d crashed through something.”

Saunders cites Redfern Now as one of his favourite Australian TV shows. For him, funding Indigenous stories for screen is about not just cosmetic representation but also deeper issues of reparation. “We go back in this country for 3200 generations,” he says. “It’s only been in five or six generations that all 3200 generations have been smashed up. So we want our own [stories]. Whether other people think it’s needed or not is totally irrelevant. We’ve shown that if you give us what we want the way we want it – and steer clear of us – it’ll pay dividends.”

Kelrick Martin, who took over from Sally Riley as ABC TV’s head of Indigenous in 2016, gets why some people might question whether his department is still needed, given Indigenous screen stories now rate. “We’re doing factual; there’s already a factual department. We’re doing drama; there’s already a drama department,” he says. “In theory, there’s a real question as to what we do and why we exist.” But only in theory, he says. After all, the ABC and SBS have cultural diversity enshrined in their charters (and for SBS, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representation specifically). ABC Indigenous is also tasked to produce 14 to 16 hours of content per year, which means many popular shows wouldn’t exist without it. The Indigenous superhero drama Cleverman was a joint responsibility of ABC Indigenous and ABC Drama; Black Comedy is the responsibility of ABC Indigenous alone, not the comedy department.

ABC Indigenous also doubles as an incubator, fast-tracking screen-education skills for emerging Indigenous voices. Black Comedy, for instance, teaches professional screenwriting skills on the go. “We have to,” Martin says. “There’s not enough of that critical mass [of Indigenous storytellers] with that sketch writing or screenwriting ability to be able to say, ‘We’ll just hire X, Y or Z.’ We have to keep reinvesting in new talent.”

It’s also worth noting that if the public broadcasters don’t produce Indigenous stories or cast Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander actors, no one will. Outside the ABC, Australian television is still overwhelmingly Caucasian. The same 2016 Screen Australia report that celebrated Indigenous on-screen population parity also soberly noted that most Indigenous characters in the survey period between 2011 and 2015 were concentrated in eight TV shows. Nearly all were ABC programs. Commercial broadcasters still enforce a white Australia, whether or not they’re aware of it.

So there is still more work to be done. Sally Riley says Australia’s big “first contact” story is yet to be told on TV. (It’s on its way, she says.) Screen Australia’s Penny Smallacombe adds that 2019 will be the United Nations’ International Year of Indigenous Languages, but it’s still rare to hear Indigenous languages onscreen. It’s also rare to have Indigenous producers working in the TV industry, such as Blackfella Films’ Darren Dale. “You can count all the Indigenous producers on both hands, and that’s simply not enough,” Smallacombe says.

There are also very few black people in positions of seniority; Riley notes the ABC board has never had a member with Indigenous heritage. This is particularly crucial. “If there’s no one that comes from a culturally diverse background in the room to bat for you, and take a chance, change just won’t be made,” Smallacombe says. “You need your agitators, you need your allies, and you need people in funding positions.” Which is to say, you need to do what white TV professionals have been doing since television started.

Right now, actor Shari Sebbens is 12 weeks into a marathon 17-week shoot for the ABC’s upcoming TV show The Heights. (“It’s been 84 years and I’ve got another seven ahead of me,” she jokes.) When it goes to air, the program will represent one of the most ambitious TV projects the ABC has undertaken in decades: a 30-episode soap opera. Unlike commercial counterparts, though, The Heights – set in a fictional Western Australian housing commission – features Australian families from Iranian, Vietnamese, Anglo and Aboriginal backgrounds. “It’s the most diverse [cast] we’ve had on Australian screens,” Sebbens says. “I feel confident saying that.”

Part of the reason might be that The Heights’ production team is stacked with culturally diverse creatives from the top down. Its co-creators are Vietnamese Australian (Que Minh Luu) and Anglo Australian (Warren Clarke); its executive producers are Indigenous Australian (the ABC’s Sally Riley) and Chinese Australian (Matchbox Pictures’ Debbie Lee). Producers have brought on first-time screenwriters and actors, and have trained them on the job. Some might argue a show as culturally inclusive as The Heights would have eventually been produced out of “merit”, but is an industry historically dominated by white male gatekeepers a meritocracy? In the case of The Heights, it took a multi-ethnic leadership team to come along to re-evaluate what constitutes merit in the first place.

Sebbens splits her time between cameras and the stage, and feels Australian TV and film have now surpassed mainstage theatre in their proficiency and fluency in telling black stories. Others agree. Earlier this year, Sydney Theatre Company playwright H. Lawrence Sumner – as part of a much bigger, bruising critique of the industry – accused the Australian theatre industry of “whitesplaining” and “hijacking” Indigenous stories like his. That grenade-drop led to other Indigenous theatre practitioners openly questioning why Aboriginal stage directors aren’t as common as Aboriginal stage actors and playwrights, and whether an Indigenous national theatre is needed.

“In a weird way, stage kind of led the charge,” Sebbens says, “but there are still white gatekeepers who get to decide what black plays are being put on.”

Throughout her career, Nakkiah Lui’s presence in all-white theatre rooms occasionally made her question whether she was there as a box-ticking exercise. She soon realised she’d grown up with people constantly assuming that of her, regardless of how hard she worked. “So I always took any opportunity as an opportunity,” she says. “If people think it’s about box ticking, that’s just what they think. Then you prove them wrong. Be better. Be the best.”

Miranda Tapsell agrees. “I know people say, ‘Well, it’s tokenistic to cast someone like Miranda.’ So I’m always on time. I’m not perfect, but most of the time I come in and bring my A-game. And I do that because I have to prove that people saw something in me.” Lui adds that it’s not an exclusively Indigenous experience: she knows Australians from minority backgrounds – migrants, for instance – can relate.

“People who come from overseas backgrounds – those are still valid, uniquely Australian stories,” ABC head of Indigenous Kelrick Martin says. “They should be right there, made as much as any other. You see them get up, but they’re never given those opportunities the same way the Indigenous department is. The Indigenous way as a model could be incredibly successful, but it comes down to sustained support. It can’t just be a flavour of the month. You have to have your skin in the game for a very long time.”

According to Blackfella Films’ Darren Dale, beyond patience and endurance it takes financial commitment and absolute will to get stories from queer, culturally diverse and disabled perspectives told. “And knowing whilst they might not succeed at the start, it’s vitally important if we want to see ourselves as the Australia we see when we walk down the streets.”

Penny Smallacombe adds that it’s about which bosses you approach. She mentions the SBS show I created and co-wrote – The Family Law, which depicts a Chinese-Australian family – as a case in point. “You would’ve never done that if Debbie Lee and Tony Ayres weren’t there,” she says of the show’s executive producers, who are Chinese Australian. It’s a fair call: that show got made because those producers – who had already forged the way for decades – saw the story’s value, didn’t question the potential audience and didn’t need cultural specifics explained. The infrastructure was already in place. Similarly in theatre, four major Asian-­Australian plays premiered in 2017: Michelle Law’s Single Asian Female (La Boite), Chi Vu’s Coloured Aliens (La Mama), Merlynn Tong’s Blue Bones (Playlab at the Brisbane Powerhouse) and Disapol Savetsila’s Australian Graffiti (Sydney Theatre Company). That only happened because the arts company Contemporary Asian Australian Performance had been running high-level training and mentorships in collaboration with theatre companies across the country.

In the meantime, Indigenous storytellers are paying it forward themselves. Now that Riley is in charge of all scripted TV at the ABC, her big push is for diversity across the board. “If I get a script that’s just all white characters, I’m like, ‘No, that’s not for us. That’s not Australia,’” she says.

Smallacombe agrees. “Enhancing cultural diversity across all screens – and not just blackfellas – is something significant and important for us. We have to continue to change the game with everyone.”

In 2016, Shari Sebbens undertook a directorial placement for Indigenous filmmakers with Maori filmmaker Taika Waititi as he filmed the Hollywood blockbuster Thor: Ragnarok. It helped distil in Sebbens’ mind what she wants to do next: tell a great bunch of adventure stories about Aussie kids. “In my mind, that cast is already made up of black kids, Chinese kids, Greek kids.” The last thing Sebbens wants to do is make some “all-white Goonies with a token Chinese boy”.

When I speak to Ryan Griffen – the creator of Cleverman – he is about to fly to Los Angeles to pitch a show with the support of Screen Australia. Making TV can be so relentless, he points out, that it’s sometimes easy to lose sight of why you’re doing it in the first place. You lose sleep. You eat what’s in front of you. You sacrifice physical and mental health. Hundreds of crew members, actors and moving parts are involved in shooting a single scene. “Halfway through you’re like, ‘Why the fuck am I doing this?’”

Then there are moments that remind you of why you embarked on a project in the first place. For Griffen, one involved Aboriginal seniors who had driven from Tamworth to a Parramatta prison set to be extras in the show. Their role was to play “hairies” – creatures from Gamilaraay and Bundjalung mythology – and Griffen came across them in full make-up and prosthetics, having a yarn. “They were just sitting there telling their own stories about hairies, while dressed up as hairies. It was amazing. Something like that happens and it just re-energises you.”

Even the mere presence of minorities onscreen is an important political corrective, Griffen feels. In this country and beyond, he notes, bigotry clearly isn’t going anywhere. Minority storytellers – Indigenous and otherwise – should not either. “Racism is such a powerful beast at the moment,” Griffen says. “You only need to see [the reaction] when they’ve got a black or Asian character in Star Wars – or a woman – and what it does to that franchise. Does that mean we don’t keep doing it? No.”

“It has been about mobilising your community, and not seeing each other as a threat,” Sebbens adds. “That’s [the attitude] the industry’s built on. Dog eat dog. Everyone’s competition. It’s not true. Not everyone has to love or like everyone. But you respect each other’s hustle.” After all, Sebbens adds, laughing, “You’ve all got a common enemy.”

Benjamin Law

Benjamin Law is the author of The Family Law and the Quarterly Essay Moral Panic 101: Equality, Acceptance and the Safe Schools Scandal. He also co-hosts Stop Everything on ABC RN.


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