“Shaz, Shaz, quick, look!” my mum and dad yelled out to me from our lounge room in Darwin, one humid evening in 1997.
I walked into the room at the fiery pace that any 13-year-old asked to do anything adopts. “Look,” mum said, pointing at the TV, “there’s a place you can go to study acting”.
My parents had stumbled upon an episode of Channel Seven’s Drama School: a short-lived reality series that gave people a behind-the-scenes look at the National Institute of Dramatic Art. I woke up the next morning, my mind made up: “Mum, when I’m 18 I’m going to go to Nida and I’m going to become an actor”. “OK,” she responded, “now get your little brother up for school.”
My mother, Annarella – a Bardi, Jabirr Jabirr woman born and raised in Broome and then Darwin – had four kids by the time she was 24. When she was 12 years old she and the other Aboriginal children in her class were told by their teacher not to worry about studying, as they would only ever be domestics anyway. Mum graduated from uni in her late 40s after raising six kids; she would go on to help her community in ways I can only aspire to. That little “OK” was my mother’s blessing; it was her choosing to believe in her children and their dreams, big or small, more than anyone had ever believed in her.
All of this despite the fact that until then I had only seen two Aboriginal people on screen: Luke Carroll in Lift off and Aaron Pederson in Water Rats. It would be another year before Deborah Mailman’s debut in The Secret Life of Us.
Deborah, Aaron and Luke: this holy trinity of black television, the only three Aboriginal faces I saw on my TV. Each of them going about their business, living lives so far from anything I knew: Aaron, the crime solving water rat; Deborah, the inner city housemate; and Luke, the schoolkid who was friends with that creepy doll. They were Aboriginal and they were on my screen and we were so proud of them – yet it would take another six years for Aboriginal Australia to truly feel they had a stake claimed in the landscape of Aussie television.
The Circuit aired in 2007 and is the first television drama to employ a mostly Aboriginal writing team. Season one screened during my first year of drama school in Sydney – look, ma, I made it! I was so far from home and this show, set in Broome where my mother was born and most of my family still remain, offered me the first time I could talk to people about a world I knew, a world I grew up in, a black world. I crossed my fingers and prayed to the Ancestors that I’d be lucky enough to work on a show like The Circuit.
Spoiler alert: my prayers were answered and then some. My first television appearance would be in 2012 when Redfern Now went into production. The first TV series to be written, directed and produced by Indigenous people.
This was a major shift for Indigenous television, and that was reflected in the audience response. Both seasons and a movie would clean up at the awards nights; critics loved it and I have it on good authority that Ray Meagher thought it was one of the best drama series this country has produced. Stone the flaming crows, ma – I made it again!
Being a part of that show was special. There was something in the quiet moments before the camera rolled – everybody, First Nations or not, could feel it. The reception was bittersweet though, because as Redfern New was going up, the Block and the community it represented were being torn down. I’ll never forget standing on the set of Nanna Coral’s house after a shower had passed through one lunchtime, and seeing a rainbow landing right behind the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island flags.
Redfern Now was a fitting homage to a terribly important period of Aboriginal history, drowned by gentrification. And in the following years, new shows bubbled forth from a fountain of ferocious First Nations talent. People who had waited their whole lives to be heard, to be seen bringing us shows like The Gods of Wheat Street. Ready For This. 8MMM. Cleverman. Black Comedy. The Warriors. Kiki & Kitty. Total Control. KGB. Little J & Big Cuz. Mystery Road.
The golden age of Indigenous television is upon us and why? Because we, First Nations people, have gained control of our narrative. We are exploring storytelling through television in every way we can. We will make mistakes, we will make history, we will spark dialogue and incite empathy. We will no longer accept a non-Indigenous lens fogging over our history and our lived experience.
Our stories are ours again and we’re not giving them back so please pull up a chair, grab a cuppa, join us for a yarn and bask in the glow.
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