One of the things I love about my culture is the sense of magic within it. Everything was created from some greater power, and I can see why elders worry that our young people are losing that sense of magic, of wonder, within the oldest living culture in the world.
Still, it’s not surprising, considering how our mob has been represented through social media, film and television. When our stories are presented with non-Indigenous audiences in mind – in mainstream theatre, film and television – we are so often shown as victims.
Rachel Maza, the artistic director of the The Ilbijerri Theatre Company, said of a recent production of The Secret River: “I do not want to be telling the story to my kids that we all died out.”
At a panel discussion on Indigenous theatre hosted by Belvoir St Theatre, Maza continued,
I want to know the story about how we won and about how we’re still here and how we’re resilient and how we’ve adapted.
And I tend to agree with her. Who wants to see stories of their mob getting kicked while they’re down time and time again? Yet too often we see overworn and tired (and sadly sometimes true) tales that portray Aboriginal characters as victims, at the expense of 60,000 years of being a warrior and survivor race.
African American rapper Snoop Dogg made a similar observation upon the recent release of the revamped US television series Roots, observing:
They just want to keep showing us the abuse that we took hundreds and hundreds of years ago.
He suggested black people create their own shows, based on how they are living today.
In Australia, thankfully, things are beginning to change, with some more nuanced stories reaching our screens.
Songlines, for instance, are pathways created by traditional Dreamtime legends, singing all they saw, and creating the country around them. These songlines are referenced as boundaries between different areas for different mobs, as well as significant sacred sites. They’re also the inspiration for a landmark new NITV series, Songlines on Screen, which has recorded traditional lore from around the country in eight short films.
Cleverman takes the place in the post-apocalyptic future, as an ancient race of “Hairypeople” want to co-exist with humans. They’re refused acknowledgement as citizens and pushed into sites set apart from the general populace (does this sound familiar?)
The titular Cleverman, played by Hunter Lochard, receives ancient knowledge and power from his grandfather, making him the defender of his people. Cleverman’s creator Ryan Griffen has said that he created this story for his son:
When I was growing up, I would always tell people I was an Aboriginal, and would get into fights because of it.
My brother and I, growing up in a country town, were well acquainted with the mind-set that being Aboriginal was some kind of all-encompassing deformity.
Hearing that Griffen created a kind of “black defender”, of the kind we needed as kids, inspires a sense of hope. More so, in the ever-growing superhero age, it inspires a sense of pride in heroes of our own.
It fills me with pride that someone can confront that kind of racism, can rise above it and create something good from it. Too often, this treatment leads our people into self-destruction.
When they’re kicked down, they sometimes stay down.
Songlines on Screen has a more orthodox approach to the supernatural elements within Aboriginal culture. It’s an amalgam of stories presented by filmmakers from around the country, showing the traditional lore that inspired stories like Cleverman.
One of these is Footprints, which tells the story of recovering traditional knowledge, and the importance of elders passing this down. Footprints director, Cornel Ozies has said:
Our culture and history is an oral one and if it is not talked about it is forgotten. In order for our culture to survive it must move from oral to documented. To record these songlines to film is a natural progression. We must use any devices at our disposal to keep our traditions alive.
Cleverman integrates traditional learning with present-day adventure appeal, and will hopefully be able to teach moral lessons: empathy, sensitivity to culture, and finding the strength to stand up for what you believe in.
And shows like Songlines on Screen will bring the young ones home traditionally, and remind them of the stories of their original cultural heroes. Special abilities and ancient knowledge aren’t always a fantastical myth, but a part of who we are as a people.
Songlines on Screen premieres on NITV on June 12 at 8.30pm.