Relationships with the Past: How Australian Television Dramas Talk about Indigenous History

Kate Warner

Abstract


In recent years a number of dramas focussing on Indigenous Australians and Australian history have appeared on the ABC, one of Australia's two public television channels. These dramas have different foci but all represent some aspects of Australian Indigenous history and how it interacts with 'mainstream' representations of Australian history. The four programs I will look at are Cleverman (Goalpost Pictures, 2016-ongoing), Glitch (Matchbox Films, 2015-ongoing), The Secret River (Ruby Entertainment, 2015) and Redfern Now (Blackfella Films, 2012), each of which engages with the past in a unique way.

Clearly, different creators, working with different plots and in different genres will have different ways of representing the past. Redfern Now and Cleverman are both produced by Indigenous creators whereas the creators of The Secret River and Glitch are white Australians. Redfern Now and The Secret River are in a realist mode, whereas Glitch and Cleverman are speculative fiction. My argument proceeds on two axes: first, speculative genres allow for more creative ways of representing the past. They give more freedom for the creators to present affective representations of the historical past. Speculative genres also allow for more interesting intellectual examinations of what we consider to be history and its uncertainties. My second axis argues, because it is hard to avoid when looking at this group of texts, that Indigenous creators represent the past in different ways than non-Indigenous creators. Indigenous creators present a more elliptical vision. Non-Indigenous creators tend to address historical stories in more overt ways. It is apparent that even when dealing with the same histories and the same facts, the understanding of the past held by different groups is presented differently because it has different affective meanings.

These television programs were all made in the 2010s but the roots of their interpretations go much further back, not only to the history they represent but also to the arguments about history that have raged in Australian intellectual and popular culture. Throughout most of the twentieth century, indigenous history was not discussed in Australia, until this was disturbed by WEH Stanner's reference in the Boyer lectures of 1968 to "our great Australian silence" (Clark 73). There was, through the 1970s and 80s, increased discussion of Indigenous history, and then in the 1990s there was a period of social and cultural argument known locally as the 'History Wars'. This long-running public disagreement took place in both academic and public arenas, and involved historians, other academics, politicians, journalists and social commentators on each side. One side argued that the arrival of white people in Australia led to frontier wars, massacre, attempted genocide and the ongoing oppression of Indigenous people (Reynolds). The other posited that when white people arrived they killed a few Aborigines but mostly Aboriginal people were killed by disease or failure to 'defend' their culture (Windschuttle). The first viewpoint was revisionist from the 1960s onwards and the second represented an attempt at counter-revision – to move the understanding of history back to what it was prior to the revision. The argument took place not only among historians, but was taken up by politicians with Paul Keating, prime minister 1993-1996, holding the first view and John Howard, prime minister 1996-2007, aggressively pursuing the second. The revisionist viewpoint was championed by historians such as Henry Reynolds and Lyndall Ryan and academics and Aboriginal activists such as Tony Birch and Aileen Moreton Robinson; whereas the counter-revisionists had Keith Windschuttle and Geoffrey Blainey. By and large the revisionist viewpoint has become dominant and the historical work of the counter-revisionists is highly disputed and not accepted.

This argument was prominent in Australian cultural discourse throughout the 1990s and has never entirely disappeared. The TV shows I am examining were not made in the 1990s, nor were they made in the 2000s - it took nearly twenty years for responses to the argument to make the jump from politicians' speeches and opinion pieces to television drama. John Ellis argues that the role of television in popular discourse is "working through," meaning contentious issues are first raised in news reports, then they move to current affairs, then talk shows and documentaries, then sketch comedy, then drama (Ellis). Australian Indigenous history was extensively discussed in the news, current affairs and talk shows in the 1990s, documentaries appeared somewhat later, notably First Australians in 2008, but sketch comedy and drama did not happen until in 2014, when Black Comedy's programme first aired, offering sketches engaging often and fiercely with indigenous history.

The existence of this public discourse in the political and academic realms was reflected in film before television. Felicity Collins argues that the "Blak Wave" of Indigenous film came to exist in the context of, and as a response to, the history wars (Collins 232). This wave of film making by Indigenous film makers included the works of Rachel Perkins, Warwick Thornton and Ivan Sen – whose films chronicled the lives of Indigenous Australians. There was also what Collins calls "back-tracking films" such as Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) and The Tracker (2010) made by white creators that presented arguments from the history wars for general audiences. Collins argues that both the "blak wave" and the "back track" created an alternative cultural sphere where past injustices are acknowledged. She says: "the films of the Blak Wave… cut across the history wars by turning an Indigenous gaze on the colonial past and its afterlife in the present" (Collins 232). This group of films sees Indigenous gazes relate the past and present whereas the white gaze represents specific history. In this article I examine a similar group of representations in television programs.

History is not an innocent discourse. In western culture 'history' describes a certain way of looking at the past that was codified in the 19th century (Lloyd 375). It is however not the only way to look at the past, theorist Mark Day has described it as a type of relation with the past and argues that other understandings of the past such as popular memory and mythology are also available (Day). The codification of history in the 19th century involved an increased reliance on documentary evidence, a claim to objectivity, a focus on causation and, often though not always, a focus on national, political history. This sort of history became the academic understanding of history – which claims to be, if not objective, at least capable of disinterest; which bases its arguments on facts and which can establish its facts through reference to documentary records (Froeyman 219). Aileen Moreton-Robinson would call this "white patriarchal knowledge" that seeks to place the indigenous within its own type of knowledge production ("The White Man's Burden" 414). The western version of history tends to focus on causation and to present the past as a coherent narrative leading to the current point in time. This is not an undisputed conception of history in the western academy but it is common and often dominant.

Post-colonialist analyses of history argue that western writing about non-western subjects is biased and forces non-westerners into categories used to oppress them (Anderson 44). These categories exist ahistorically and deny non-westerners the ability to act because if history cannot be perceived then it is difficult to see the future. That is to say, because non-western subjects in the past are not seen as historical actors, as people whose actions effected the future, then, in the present, they are unable to access to powerful arguments from history. Historians' usual methodology casts Indigenous people as the 'subjects' of history which is about them, not by them or for them (Tuhiwai Smith 7, 30-32, 144-5). Aboriginal people are characterised as prehistoric, ancient, timeless and dying (Birch 150). This way of thinking about Indigenous Australia removes all agency from Aboriginal actors and restoring agency has been a goal of Aboriginal activists and historians. Aileen Moreton Robinson discusses how Aboriginal resistance is embodied through "oral history (and) social memory," engaging with how Aboriginal actors represent themselves and are represented in relation to the past and historical settings is an important act ("Introduction" 127).

Redfern Now and Cleverman were produced through the ABC's Indigenous Department and made by Indigenous filmmakers, whereas Glitch and The Secret River are from the ABC drama department and were made by white Australians. The different programs also have different generic backgrounds. Redfern Now and The Secret River are different forms of realist texts; social realism and historical realism. Cleverman and Glitch, however, are speculative fiction texts that can be argued to be in the mode of magical realism, they "denaturalise the real and naturalise the marvellous" they are also closely tied ideas of retelling colonial stories and "resignify(ing) colonial territories and pasts" (Siskind 834-5).

Redfern Now was produced by Blackfella Films for the ABC. It was, with much fanfare, released as the first drama made for television, by Aboriginal people and about Aboriginal people (Blundell). The central concerns of the program are issues in the present, its plots and settings are entirely contemporary. In this way it circumvents the idea and standard representation of Indigenous Australians as ancient and timeless. It places the characters in the program very much in the present.

However, one episode "Stand Up" does obliquely engage with historical concerns. In this episode a young boy, Joel Shields, gets a scholarship to an expensive private school. When he attends his first school assembly he does not sing the national anthem with the other students. This leads to a dispute with the school that forms the episode's plot. As punishment for not singing Joel is set an assignment to research the anthem, which he does and he finds the song off-putting – with the words 'boundless plains to share' particularly disconcerting. His father supports him saying "it's not our song" and compares Joel singing it to a "whitefella doing a corrobboree". The national anthem stands metaphorically for the white hegemony in Australia.

The school itself is also a metaphor for hegemony. The camerawork lingers on the architecture which is intended to imply historical strength and imperviousness to challenge or change. The school stands for all the force of history white Australia can bring to bear, but in Australia, all architecture of this type is a lie, or at least an exaggeration – the school cannot be more than 200 years old and is probably much more recent.

Many of the things the program says about history are conveyed in half sentences or single glances. Arguably this is because of its aesthetic mode – social realism – that prides itself on its mimicry of everyday life and in everyday life people are unlikely to set out arguments in organised dot-point form. At one point the English teacher quotes Orwell, "those who control the past control the future", which seems overt but it is stated off-screen as Joel walks into the room. This seeming aside is a statement about history and directly recalls central arguments of the history wars, which make strong political arguments about the effects of the past, and perceptions of the past, on the present and future. Despite its subtlety, this story takes place within the context of the history wars: it is about who controls the past. The subtlety of the discussion of history allows the film makers the freedom to comment on the content and effects of history and the history wars without appearing didactic. They discuss the how history has effected the present history without having to make explicit historical causes.

The other recent television drama in the realist tradition is The Secret River. This was an adaptation of a novel by Kate Grenville. It deals with Aboriginal history from the perspective of white people, in this way it differs from Redfern Now which discusses the issues from the perspective of Aboriginal people. The plot concerns a man transported to Australia as a convict in the early 19th century. The man is later freed and, with his family, attempts to move to the Hawksbury river region. The land they try to settle is, of course, already in use by Aboriginal people. The show sets up the definitional conflict between the idea of settler and invader and suggests the difference between the two is a matter of perspective. Of the shows I am examining, it is the most direct in its representation of historical massacre and brutality. It represents what Felicity Collins described as a back-tracking text recapitulating the colonial past in the light of recovered knowledge. However, from an Indigenous perspective it is another settler tale implying Aboriginal people were wiped out at the time of colonisation (Godwin).

The Secret River is told entirely from the perspective of the invaders. Even as it portrays their actions as wrong, it also suggests they were unavoidable or inevitable. Therefore it does what many western histories of Indigenous people do – it classifies and categorises. It sets limits on interpretation. It is also limited by its genre, as a straightforward historical drama and an adaptation, it can only tell its story in a certain way. The television series, like the book before it, prides itself on its 'accurate' rendition of an historical story. However, because it comes from such a very narrow perspective it falls into the trap of categorising histories that might have usefully been allowed to develop further.

The program is based on a novel that attracted controversy of its own. It became part of ongoing historiographical debate about the relationship between fiction and history. The book's author Kate Grenville claimed to have written a kind of affectively accurate history that actual history can never convey because the emotions of the past are hidden from the present. The book was critiqued by historians including Inge Clendinnen, who argued that many of the claims made about its historical accuracy were largely overblown (Clendinnen). The book is not the same as the TV program, but the same limitations identified by Clendinnen are present in the television text. However, I would not agree with Clendinnen that formal history is any better. I argue that the limitation of both these mimetic genres can be escaped in speculative fiction.

In Glitch, Yurana, a small town in rural Victoria becomes, for no apparent reason, the site of seven people rising from the dead. Each person is from a different historical period. None are Indigenous. They are not zombies but simply people who used to be dead. One of the first characters to appear in the series is an Aboriginal teenager, Beau, we see from his point of view the characters crawling from their graves. He becomes friendly with one of the risen characters, Patrick Fitzgerald, who had been the town's first mayor. At first Fitzgerald's story seems to be one of working class man made good in colonial Australia - a standard story of Australian myth and historiography. However, it emerges that Fitzgerald was in love with an Aboriginal woman called Kalinda and Beau is his descendant. Fitzgerald, once he becomes aware of how he has been remembered by history, decides to revise the history of the town – he wants to reclaim his property from his white descendants and give it to his Indigenous descendants. Over the course of the six episodes Fitzgerald moves from being represented as a violent, racist boor who had inexplicably become the town's mayor, to being a romantic whose racism was mostly a matter of vocabulary. Beau is important to the plot and he is a sympathetic character but he is not central and he is a child. Indigenous people in the past have no voice in this story – when flashbacks are shown they are silent, and in the present their voices are present but not privileged or central to the plot.

The program demonstrates a profoundly metaphorical relationship with the past – the past has literally come to life bringing with it surprising buried histories. The program represents some dominant themes in Australian historiography – other formerly dead characters include a convict-turned-bush-ranger, a soldier who was at Gallipoli, two Italian migrants and a girl who died as a result of sexual violence – but it does not engage directly with Indigenous history. Indigenous people's stories are told only in relation to the stories of white people. The text's magical realism allows a less prescriptive relationship with the past than in The Secret River but it is still restricted in its point of view and allows only limited agency to Aboriginal actors.

The text's magical realism allows for a thought-provoking representation of relationships with the past. The town of Yurana is represented as a place deeply committed to the representation and glorification of its past. Its main street contains statues of its white founders and war memorials, one of its main social institutions is the RSL, its library preserves relics of the past and its publican is a war history buff. All these indicate that the past is central to the town's identity. The risen dead however dispute and revise almost every aspect of this past. Even the history that is unmentioned in the town's apparent official discourse, such as the WWII internment camp and the history of crimes, is disputed by the different stories of the past that the risen dead have to tell. This indicates the uncertainty of the past, even when it seems literally set in stone it can still be revised. Nonetheless the history of Indigenous people is only revised in ways that re-engage with white history.

Cleverman is a magical realist text profoundly based in allegory. The story concerns the emergence into a near future society of a group of people known as the "Hairies." It is never made clear where they came from or why but it seems they appeared recently and are unable to return. They are an allegory for refugees. Hairypeople are part of many Indigenous Australian stories, the show's creator, Ryan Griffen, stated that "there are different hairy stories throughout Australia and they differ in each country. You have some who are a tall, some are short, some are aggressive, some are friendly. We got to sort of pick which ones will fit for us and create the Hairies for our show" (Bizzaca).

The Hairies are forced to live in an area called the Zone, which, prior to the arrival of the Hairy people, was a place where Aboriginal people lived. This place might be seen as a metaphor for Redfern but it is also an allegory for Australia's history of displacing Aboriginal people and moving and restricting them to missions and reserves. The Zone is becoming increasingly securitised and is also operating as a metaphor for Australia's immigration detention centres. The prison the Hairy characters, Djukura and Bunduu, are confined to is yet another metaphor, this time for both the over-representation of Aboriginal people in prison and the securitisation of immigration detention. These multiple allegorical movements place Australia's present refugee policies and historical treatment of Aboriginal people within the same lens. They also place the present, the past and the future within the same narrative space.

Most of the cast is Aboriginal and much of the character interaction is between Aboriginal people and Hairies, with both groups played by Indigenous actors. The disadvantages suffered by Indigenous people are part of the story and clearly presented as affecting the behaviour of characters but within the story Aboriginal people are more advantaged than Hairies, as they have systems, relationships and structures that Hairy people lack. The fact that so much of the interaction in the story is between Indigenous people and Hairies is important: it can be seen to be an interaction between Aboriginal people and Aboriginal mythology or between Indigenous past and present. It demonstrates Aboriginal identities being created in relation to other Aboriginal identities and not in relation to white people, where in this narrative, Aboriginal people have an identity other than that allowed for in colonialist terms.

Cleverman does not really engage with the history of white invasion. The character who speaks most about this part of Aboriginal history and whose stated understanding of himself is based on that identity is Waruu. But Waruu is also a villain whose self-identity is also presented as jealous and dishonest. However, despite only passing mentions of westernised history the show is deeply concerned with a relationship with the past. The program engages with Aboriginal traditions about the past that have nothing to do with white history. It presents a much longer view of history than that of white Australia. It engages with the Aboriginal tradition of the Cleverman - demonstrated in the character of Uncle Jimmy who passes a nulla nulla (knob-headed hardwood club), as a symbol of the past, to his nephew Koen and tells him he is the new Cleverman. Cleverman demonstrates a discussion of Australian history with the potential to ignore white people. It doesn't ignore them, it doesn't ignore the invasion but it presents the possibility that it could be ignored.

There is a danger in this sort of representation of the past that Aboriginal people could be relegated to the type of ahistorical, metahistorical myths that comprise colonialist history's representation of Indigenous people (Birch). But Cleverman's magical realist, near future setting tends to undermine this. It grounds representation in history through text and metaphor and then expands the definition.

The four programs have different relationships with the past but all of them engage with it. The programs are both restrained and freed by the genres they operate in. It is much easier to escape the bounds of formal history in the genre of magical realism and both Glitch and Cleverman do this but have significantly different ways of dealing with history. "Stand up" and The Secret River both operate within more formally realist structures. The Secret River gives us an emotional reading of the past and a very affective one. However, it cuts off avenues of interpretation by presenting a seemingly inevitable tragedy. Through use of metaphor and silence "Stand up" presents a much more productive relationship with the past – seeing it as an ongoing argument rather than a settled one. Glitch engages with the past as a topic that is not settled and that can therefore be changed whereas Cleverman expands our definition of past and understanding of the past through allegory.

It is possible to draw further connections. Those stories created by Indigenous people do not engage with the specifics of traditional dominant Australian historiography. However, they work with the assumption that everyone already knows this historiography. They do not re-present the pain of the past, instead they deal with it in oblique terms with allegory. Whereas the programs made by non-Indigenous Australians are much more overt in their representation of the sins of the past, they overtly engage with the History Wars in specific historical arenas in which those wars were fought. The non-Indigenous shows align themselves with the revisionist view of history but they do so in a very different way than the Indigenous shows.

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Keywords


history; television; Australian television; Australian history; History Wars; Cleverman; Glitch; The Secret River; Redfern Now



Copyright (c) 2017 Kate Warner

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