No Mere Survival

redfern-graffitiFrom over here in America, I usually have a hard time finding an appropriate subject with which to mark Survival Day.  But this year, I’ve just finished watching Redfern Now, the first dramatic series to emerge from the ABC’s Indigenous Department.  With perfect timing, this weekend the show’s Facebook page announced that a second season has been commissioned and scripting is underway.   My only compunction in choosing to review this great programming in honor of Survival Day is that “survival,” though fundamental, is too simple a concept to grasp what is presented in these six episodes.  One needs to cluster many other words around that idea to catch the full flavor of the stories: there is pride, devotion, honor, foolishness, dignity, determination, forgiveness, and duty captured in these stories of ordinary lives.

Redfern Now comes to us from Blackfella Films, the partnership between Rachel Perkins and Darren Dale, so the degree of excellence it achieves should be no surprise to anyone who has seen First Australians, Mabo, Bran Nue Dae,  The Tall Man, Warwick Thornton’s short films Payback and Mimi, or Beck Cole’s Flat.  The stars could hardly shine brighter: Deborah Mailman (Mabo, The Sapphires), Leah Purcell (Jindabyne, Lantana), Dean Daley-Jones (Toomelah, Mad Bastards), Miranda Tapsell (The Sapphires), Jimi Bani (Mabo, The Straits), Shari Sebbens (The Sapphires), Wayne Blair (director of The Sapphires) and Kelton Pell (Cloudstreet, The Circuit) top the list.  Purcell and Blair each directed one of the episodes; Rachel Perkins and Catriona Mackenzie handled the directorial chores for two more each.  Several of the episodes center on the lives of teenagers in the suburb, and if we are to see more of actors Aaron McGrath, Rhimi Johnson Page, and Shari Sebbens, we can be assured that the future of Indigenous cinema is a bright one.

And yet, despite all this talent, what nailed me to the heart in each week’s episode was the storytelling.  On seeing the first episode, “Family,” a friend commented, “No saints, no villains.”  Kelton Pell’s character in episode three, “Raymond,” is a man in whom pride and vanity are so intermingled that no-one, not friends not family and certainly not Raymond, can tell them apart.  The story here has an O. Henryesque twist that resolves its central mystery; it is satisfying and logical from a narrative perspective, and utterly heartbreaking at the same time.

The fourth episode, “Stand Up,” probably comes closest to painting its characters as either saint or villains.  The plot revolves around a young boy, Joel (Aaron McGrath), who jeopardizes his scholarship at an elite Sydney college by refusing to stand up for the daily singing of “Advance, Australia Fair.”  The school’s principal comes closest to heartless evil in the series when she expels the boy; his remaining Aboriginal classmates are the heroes whose solidarity results in his re-instatement.  But these kids are surrounded by adults whose motivations and strategies for survival are shot through with ambiguity.  Joel’s initial lack of participation in singing the anthem stems from simply not knowing the words; it is his father who casts the awkward silence for him as a political statement.  Eddie is a man who struggles to find something meaningful to offer his child, a man whose pride is barely intact, but finds hope, however misguided, in his son’s potential.  The poetry teacher counsels cooperation, but ultimately stands silent at the head of the assembly; the Indigenous counselor advises sly protest, but is co-opted by his role and offers no support to the struggling boy.  The story may have a conventionally happy ending, but there are echoes of defeat rumbling like the breaking of surf on the shore heard from a long distance.

By and large, each episode is self-contained in terms of plot, although a few characters–and the Block itself–re-appear in one or more episodes.  The most consistent presence in the series is that of policeman Aaron Davis (Wayne Blair), who steps onto center stage in the final episode, “Pretty Boy Blue,” after being a minor but indispensable player in the earlier stories as the representative of law and social order.  The story draws its inspiration, surprisingly, from the Cameron Doomadgee tragedy on Palm Island: a drunken, abusive youth (Lenny, played with full-on nastiness by Luke Carroll) taunts the police on the streets; some hours later, he is brought into the station, roughed up in a fight with parties unknown.  In his anger and intoxication, he lashes out again at Aaron’s soft spot by suggesting that he has slept with Aaron’s daughter.  Aaron resists the urge to bash the boy, but decides to punish the “tough guy” by not calling an ambulance to investigate the obvious pain that Lenny is experiencing.  In an eerie replay of the Palm Island watchhouse tapes, we see Lenny roll on the floor in agony and die when the ambos have been called too late.

Aaron is prevented from explaining himself and his role in the disaster by the ongoing status of the police investigation into a death in custody; he is similarly prevented from defending himself by his debilitating sense of grief and responsibility.  It’s an extraordinarily difficult hour to watch, turning on its head as it does all our easy expectations and judgements about black and white and wrong and right, all our conditioned responses to Chris Hurley and Cameron Doomadgee.  It’s a fine example of a risk that only a blackfella film (or Blackfella Films) could undertake.

I couldn’t predict how it was going to turn out; previous episodes had been sentimentally resolved and unsentimentally unresolved, so there wasn’t a pattern or a predictability to rely on.  In the end, I felt like I got more than I bargained for.

For one thing, one of the only avenues for anything approaching redemption that appeared open to Aaron was to use his skills as a copper to find whoever had gotten into the fight with Lenny that led to his fatal injuries.  Nothing could have surprised me more than the answer to that mystery when it turned out that the assailant was Danny, whom we’d last seen at the end of episode 2, where as the hero of the story he was happily in love, forgiven his transgressions, and apparently on the road to a brighter future.  The surprise was handled matter-of-factly: he was identified as a person of interest, chased down, and arrested.  End of story: no moralizing, no chest-beating, no further information about his fate.  Rather than tying up a loose end, the writers were raveling one.

The conclusion to Aaron’s own story was equally surprising.  Finally he must walk down the block to Aunty Mona’s–Lenny’s mother–to confront his responsibility.  He has not only been at least indirectly responsible for Lenny’s death, he has lied about its particulars to his mother, covering up the torment the boy suffered at the end.  He comes to own up to Aunty Mona’s accusations, to confess his role and his guilt, but he doesn’t receive absolution.  Aunty Mona slaps him hard, and Nathan punches him to the floor when he rises from his seat.  Then comes Aunty Mona’s final judgment, which is both surprising and inevitable.  “Get up,” she tells him, “Our mob needs you.”

Aaron stands and walks out of her home past the sullen, silent, suspicious stares of the community members gathered around the house of grief.  In the street his daughter waits for him with his granddaughter in her arms, and again there is that mixture of surprise and inevitability.  And this is the final word for Redfern Now: that community and family must endure, and that nothing, no misfortune, no trauma, no fear nor desire, can alter that truth.



I can hardly wait for Season Two.

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4 Responses to No Mere Survival

  1. shawjonathan says:

    Thanks for that wonderful review, Will. I felt that I was seeing it all over again. You may not know that Patricia Morton-Thomas, who played Aunt Mona in the final episode, had been in the news in the weeks before that episode was screened leading a protest in Central Australia over the death of a young man in custody. As far as I know the events in the news happened well after the episode was filmed, but they gave extraordinary potency to her performance when it was screened.

  2. desertkapati says:

    Hi Jonathan, Hi Will,
    Nice review Will, as ever.
    Trisha Morton-Thomas (Radiance, and writer/director/producer as well) has indeed been in the news. The Alice Springs death in custody, just over a year ago, was her nephew. A struggle for just continues after the police officers on duty at the time of his death were effectively exonerated from major charges even though the judge found that they’d been negligent. The death happened before the Redfern Now episode was filmed but the filming did happen some weeks before Trisha and her family had the opportunity to see the close-circuit footage of their nephew/son/cousin’s last hours in the cell. Trisha said in an interview last year that the event had given her the power [or words to this effect] to play the role of Aunt Mona but that it was probably a good thing she hadn’t seen the real footage be the time of the shoot as it might have been very tough, maybe too tough, if she had have.

  3. desertkapati says:

    oops – I meant ‘A struggle for justice’…

  4. Will says:

    Thank you both, Jonathan and Lisa, for filling out the story–I didn’t know about the connection until you raised it. If there are other readers out there as ignorant as I, there are details of the story here:

    I’m stunned to learn all this, and it only serves to make the art of Redfern Now all the more moving, powerful, and disturbing.

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