First Australians

One of the things I enjoy most about the holidays is the extra time off from work and (some years, at least) the chance to poke around at home, catching up on things I have neither time nor energy to do when my day job consumes most of both. I have the opportunity to relax in front of the television set and luxuriate in the best of Australian DVDs. Last year this time it was The Circuit. This year I’ve devoured First Australians: the untold story of Australia, which my friend Jonathan succinctly described as “television fulfilling the functions it was dreamed up for.”

(Before I go any further, props to David Nash for pointing me to the SBS site from which I was actually able to download the individual episodes, allowing me to enjoy them while waiting for the ABC Shop to ship the DVD. I’m also still anticipating the arrival of the companion book, First Australians: an illustrated history (Melbourne University Publishing, 2008), which looks to be a both lavish and useful supplement to the video experience.)

Louis Nowra, scriptwriter for the series, recently bemoaned the fact that only about 300,000 Australians tuned in to watch the series (“Indifference has robbed generations of our history,” Sydney Morning Herald, December 27, 2008). If he’s right in his figures and in his assessment that this is an abysmally low number, then his complaint about the sorry state of awareness of many aspects of contact history is well justified. While this comes as no surprise, it is a shame that this series was not more widely appreciated. First Australians redefines Horace’s dictum that poetry (or more broadly, art, or narrowly, television) should be dulce et utile, sweet and useful. Although, in the case ofFirst Australians, perhaps bittersweet and useful comes closer to the mark.

Director Rachel Perkins has created a masterpiece of visual history. First of all, the stories she tells are beyond riveting, and I suppose Nowra must share in the credit for the emotional affect they generate. Each episode is located in the biography of one or two individuals, with a generous supporting cast; each episode is located in a different part of the country, and at a different period in history. I would have thought that this strategy would result in a fragmented and fitful view of history: the gaps of all sorts that existed in my mind between Bennelong (Episode 1) and Truganini (Episode 2) seemed great, and I feared that too much would be left out.

But herein lies the genius of Rachel Perkins, for in the course of the series’ seven episodes, she rings similar changes no matter what the ostensible subject matter, no matter who is the focus of the evening’s biographical investigation. There is a correspondence among all the stories that are told here that creates unity out of their diversity, e pluribus unum, if I may be allowed to lapse once more in Latin and to betray my American perspective.

And the theme that she weaves out of this manifold collection of stories is that of the First Australians’ repeated, incessant, native desire to engage with the incomers. It’s a remarkable thing to witness, to hear in their own voices as recorded in their own letters and diaries or written down by English marines and clerics: to witness the willingness to reach out, to accommodate (vide the OED, “to provide room for, to reconcile”) the strangers who came into their land. There is an openness on the part of the First Australians to adopting what was useful or what they judged superior or beneficial. This is seen perhaps mostly strongly in the history of Coranderrk that is heartbreakingly told in Episode 3. There is the desire to communicate the essence of their beliefs as well as their responsiveness to respectful treatment that makes Frank Gillen the whitefella hero of Episode 4’s story of Arrernte Law in Central Desert. (And I for one greatly appreciated the appropriate displacement of Baldwin Spencer to the sidelines of this story). Desolation emerges in the refusal on the part of the progress-mad Victorians who came a-colonizing to listen, to see, and to believe.

The richness of the sources brought to bear on each story also helps to sustain connections among them. The story of Bennelong made me want to go back to the pages ofDancing With Strangers, especially after seeing and hearing Inga Clendinnen’s contributions to the first episode’s narration. Likewise, the story of Truganini and Tasmania was given a deep added resonance by the commentary of photographer Ricky Maynard, and after watching the second episode I went back to watch with renewed appreciation and understanding the superb documentary about him that aired on Message Stick last May. (It has unfortunately disappeared from the ABC website now after six months, but perhaps, if someone at the ABC is listening, they will schedule a repeat during their summer series. The equally excellent two-part set on Michael Riley is now back in the rotation, and shouldn’t be missed.)

A third device that lends continuity to the series is the chorus of scholars, writers, and (in later episodes) participants who comment on the historical narrative. Three of these commentators appear in almost every episode, and I came to think of them as the Moirae (or the Fates, switching here to the Greek for a moment), each of whom embodied a different aspect of the Aboriginal repsonse; together their perspectives informed one another’s and enriched the story: another example of how First Australians ends up being greater than the sum of its parts. Gordon Briscoe (Research School of Social Sciences at ANU) is the almost dispassionate voice of historical narration, who nonetheless imparts a sense of the grand injustices that the First Australians have suffered. Marcia Langton (University of Melbourne) incarnates righteous anger and speaks uncomfortable truth, verging at times on bitterness. Bruce Pascoe, a prolific author of novels and non-fiction, articulates the sadness inherent in all these stories in a voice that evokes Indigenous understanding in the face of the occupiers’ incomprehension.

And finally, there is extraordinary photography by Kim Batterham and Warwick Thornton. Perkins and Nowra made the wise decision not to stage re-enactments of historical events, the kind of pseudo-documentary filmmaking that only serves to make an audience aware of how unrealistic and downright stagey the storytelling is. Instead they chose to rely on 1,500 still images supplemented by voiceovers of actors reading the words of the historical figures involved from the days before the technologies of the 20th century allowed the First Australians to speak for themselves. In adopting the techniques perfected by the American documentarian Ken Burns they availed themselves of an impeccable pedigree.

But beyond that the footage that was shot especially for this series is a wonder to behold. Many times the cinematography serves to re-inforce the fundamental connection of the First Australians to country and in such a way that these twice-told tales are given life in ways unseen until now. There have been many documentaries that have tried to capture the Dreaming, but none has done so as effectively as the opening sequences of the first episode. 

Quick cuts between footage of Central Desert women dancing and European etchings of ceremony give way to a pre-creation view of the continent represented by the flat wastes of the southwest coast, featureless clouds, and undulating waters. The evocative and original score that gently underlies these initial visuals begins to pulse with drums as the Dreaming ancestors’ stories are quickly glossed, and mountains and forests emerge. The story of Itikiwara’s transgression against the marriage laws is embodied in stunning photographs of Chambers Pillar (below left). Creation in the north is evoked by a painting of the Djangka’wu Sisters that fades in from an aerial view of an Arnhem Land waterfall. By the time the scene shifts to the eastern coasts and the green mountains of New South Wales and we are told how, his work of creation done, “Baiame stepped off a mountain and back into the sky” (below right), the visceral, sensual impact of the Dreaming has been conveyed with a power and economy never before seen on the screen. Like a novel whose entire action is foretold in an exquisitely crafted opening paragraph, First Australians has made its mark and told its story before we barely register that it has begun. The country has spoken.

But in the end it is history, not pre-history, that First Australians teaches, the history that is almost by definition bound up with European colonizers. (Indeed, there is little in the series that touches on the First Australians’ contact with their Macassan neighbors or their shared history with Chinese in the Victorian goldfields or with Japanese pearlers.) Six years in the making, the series likewise remains silent about current affairs but instead allows us to reflect on events from the Harbour Bridge walk to the Apology, assessing their origins and their significance in the light of the stories that are revealed so movingly in the seven chapters of this remarkable investigation into the lives of the First Australians.

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2 Responses to First Australians

  1. Pingback: No Mere Survival | Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye

  2. Pingback: A Bloke’s Own Story | Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye

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