Blackfella (Stories) / Whitefella (Television)

The lead essay in the current (March 2008) issue of The Monthly, “Sorry Business: the road to the Apology” by Robert Manne, opens with a startling admission. Manne authored the first Quarterly Essay in 2001, In Denial: the Stolen Generations and the Right, described on Black Ink’s website as “a brilliant polemical essay which doubles as succinct history of how the Aborigines were mistreated, and an exposure of the ignorance of those who want to deny that history.” Since then he has been perhaps the major voice writing and debating the sad story of the Stolen Generations.

Given the ardor with which Manne has championed the cause, I had to read the first paragraph of his new piece twice to make sure I had understood him correctly.

In a recent conversation the novelist Alex Miller told me he thought people who claimed that they hadn’t known, until relatively recently, that Aboriginal children had been forcibly removed from their families were lying. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that, until the publication of Bringing Them Home in 1997, my own ignorance about Aboriginal-child removal had not been feigned but real. Like very many Australians, I was shocked, moved and ashamed when I read its account of the systematic decades-long practice of separating Aboriginal children of mixed descent from their mothers, families and communities, and of the physical and psychic suffering so many had endured, as a consequence, for the remainder of their lives. This was a chapter of recent Australian history I had not taken the trouble to understand.

Manne’s essay is well worth a trip to your public library to peruse, if you don’t already subscribe to The Monthly. It recapitulates the politics of the past ten years, and charts Manne’s actions and motives in opposing the rise of the Howard historians; it also illuminates the personal reasons that Manne has so vigorously asserted the charge of genocide. (I am inclined to agree with my friend Jonathan when he quotes Godwin’s Law of Internet Discussion, to wit, that as soon as someone mentions the Nazis in a discussion, that discussion has come to the end of its useful life.)

However, my purpose today is not to analyze Manne’s essay, but to speculate that he might have tumbled to the story sooner if he’d simply watched more television.

I’m joking, of course, but I recently finished watching Heartland, a thirteen-part ABC mini-series filmed in 1994 starring Ernie Dingo and Cate Blanchett. (In the United States it’s been released under the title Burned Bridge, and is available from the DVD rental service Netflix.) Among the many subplots that swirl through the series is a very affecting treatment of a family that was torn apart by well-intentioned social services.

But let me back up and provide an overview of the series first. Dingo plays Vincent Burunga, a policeman who’s fled WA and taken up work as the Aboriginal police liaison officer in a fictional town in coastal NSW called Brooklyn Waters, next door to the Aboriginal mission community of Binbilla. Blanchett’s character, Beth Ashton, has similarly fled Sydney and a failed marriage to take up temporary residence in the house that she has inherited as the only known surviving descendant of her grandfather, Jock.

Much of the action is driven by the murder of a young girl from the mission. Her boyfriend Ricky is charged with the crime and can not exonerate himself: he was passing out drunk at the time after being fired from his job after a run-in with a set of the town’s redneck racists. In the face of Ricky’s silence and confusion, the police engineer a statement that amounts to a confession; whether or not Ricky is guilty of the crime, he is seen as having failed his duty to the young girl, and that fact alone is enough to divide the mission families against one another.

As with any good television serial of driven by desire and hatred, subplots abound, and not all of them fit nicely into the overall structure of the story. Some are left hanging by the barest threads, others are introduced primarily (it seems) as vehicles for raising perennial themes of dysfunction, disillusionment, and disappointment. Though the individual pieces don’t always lock together in the tightest of jigsaw puzzles, each element is individually well handled, and the acting throughout is excellent. Some of the writing in the early episodes is awkward, and occasionally there are scenes that seem to function only to move characters from one location to another. But the quality improves from week to week, and by the concluding episodes the suspense is high and the emotions are powerful. The climax in the final episode is surprising, pulse-pounding, and ultimately satisfying.

The Stolen Generations subplot shares the highs and lows of the series overall. It bobs to the surface for a few episodes, and then its characters disappear without a trace, their ephemeral connections to the rest of the cast forgotten. But for the moments that it holds center stage in the drama, it is a fine piece of work. It centers on the story of Eddie, who was raised by a white family (under the name of Ben) after being removed from the mission as a very young child. It turns out that Eddie was Jock’s illegitimate son, and as such, he is Beth’s only living relative.

Beth helps the boy’s mother and half-sister track him down, and reveals to him the true story of his birth. His transformation from a suited-up real estate agent to a flag-wearing activist on behalf of the mission comes too quickly and easily, but the psychic cost of that metamorphosis is given surprising nuance. His drive to mastery and success, clearly the product of his middle-class white upbringing, is the source of eventual heartbreak, as he fails to comprehend the pride of the Indigenous community in its own rules and resourcefulness. 

Meanwhile, his desire to reconnect with his roots alienates him from his adopted community and breaks the bonds he forged as a whitefella. He finds himself irrevocably changed and belonging to neither community rather than to both. The confusion, the loneliness, and the sense of all futures suddenly aborted are all depicted with sympathy and with a surprisingly unflinching lack of sentimentality, given that this is a television melodrama. If the rest of Heartland had been a failure, it would still be worth watching for these few hours. Happily, Heartland is a delight, in part thanks to the fine performances by Dingo and Blanchett, whose on-screen relationship is handled with affection and trust, but more because it does justice to the complexities of the ways in which Indigenous people must strive to be seen and heard in the fog of an alien culture.

(Two notes on the casting of minor characters: a very young Luke Carroll, recently seen as Michael in The Alice, and as Dumby Red in Aboriginal Rules, plays grandson to Bob Maza, the mish’s elder uncle, and a not quite so young, but still remarkably boyish Aaron Pederson, lately the hero of The Circuit on SBS, had a very small role as the brother of the murdered girl.)

Heartland shares with The Circuit the distinction of being mainstream television in which (I’d estimate) more than 90 per cent of the cast members are Aboriginal. In both cases, the success of the drama relies largely on the inherent conflicts between black law and white law, and both ask their white audiences to enter imaginatively into the logic of black law, to see beyond the invisible cultural assumptions that lead politicians and (all too often) ordinary people with a profound lack of sympathy for the Indigenous perspective.

My current fascination with Australian television series began this Christmas, when we received the DVD version of The Circuit and spent a wonderful holiday week watching its six episodes over as many evenings. (Unlike Heartland/Burned BridgeThe Circuit is only available in an Australian edition, which means US and European viewers will need a region-free DVD player in order to enjoy it; the US$50 I spent to procure such a device was well worth it.)

If you come from overseas like me or missed The Circuit on SBS in mid-2007, you owe it to yourself to catch up. Aaron Pederson plays a big-city lawyer out of Perth who returns to his country of the Kimberley for a short tour as an Aboriginal Legal Services defense lawyer. He hopes the duty will further his career and his political aspirations; instead, like Eddie/Ben in Heartland, he finds himself connecting with family and country in ways that set him adrift and put him at odds with both the whitefella and blackfella worlds.

Also like HeartlandThe Circuit is over-packed with subplots and thematic twists, and as with Heartland, I enjoyed following every minute of every one of them. Once again, it is the inability of whitefellas to sympathetically enter into the country of blackfellas–and I mean “country” metaphorically here–that is at the root of so much confusion, distrust, and tragedy. And once again, there’s a minor subplot that conveys this inability to connect in the most telling and heartrending fashion.

The love story of Archie and Clarrie, one a white man, the other one black, one from the city and one from the bush, doesn’t get a great deal of play in the series’ six hours until the very end. Again, there’s a fair amount left unstated (or on the cutting room floor), but Archie and Clarrie have come back to Broome, where Clarrie has to hide the truth of the relationship from his family.

Archie has no such compunctions: he’s rootless and except for Clarrie alone. He also has problems with alcohol, anger, and jealousy, although the show doesn’t do a very good job or explaining where these trouble come from or offering any insight into the mix of Archie’s motives. (Whether this is the fault of editing or a deliberate attempt to make Archie’s character an inscrutable blank is something I haven’t yet decided.)

The tragedy erupts during a festival in Broome after Archie urges a hit of the designer drug Ecstasy on Clarrie. It’s an interesting and telling twist on the theme of substance abuse that otherwise plays a major role in the series’ histories of cases on the country courthouse circuit. Clarrie is at first unwilling to take the drug; he knows it’s part of the trouble he and Archie have had before. But more importantly, it’s a part of their life that belonged to their days in Melbourne. It doesn’t fit into the world of the Kimberley.

Archie has no restraint and no restraints. Free of almost all connections, he’s careless of the connection with Clarrie, and heedless of Clarrie’s ties to family and country. For him, the drug would be liberating if he had anything left to be liberated from other than a veneer of social inhibitions. And so, when exhilaration turns ugly and the two men turn violent, bones get broken, and love get battered. But Clarrie is the one who lands in jail, trapped and desperate. Archie is bereft and beaten, but deals with it by escaping from the Kimberley. Clarrie is left in the cell, and the specter of death in custody looms over the cliff-hanger conclusion to The Circuit.

The investigations into deaths in custody and the Stolen Generations framed the 1990s start and finish. That they have made their way into the popular imagination via the medium of the television drama ought to be an encouraging sign. That someone like Robert Manne missed that infusion into the mainstream, though, still warns me that the message was getting lost. The greatest value of Rudd’s Apology may still lie in the fact that it garnered worldwide attention. Sadly, the challenge remains to bring home not just the news but the painful truth. Perhaps dramas like Heartland and The Circuit can help to achieve the goal of humanizing the headlines, and ABC and SBS can continue to pursue the transmutation of rhetoric into art for the good of us all.

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