First Contact more than just ‘rusted on racists’

Producers spoke to more than 700 Australians to find 6 with a wide-range of views on Indigenous Australia, for their SBS series.

2014-11-17_1958It would have been relatively ‘easy’ to cast 6 Australians with fiercely-racist views for the landmark SBS series, First Contact.

But that’s not what Darren Dale of Blackfella Films wanted to do. While there are some amongst the 6 who brand Indigenous Australians as lazy / victims / alcoholics / and uneducated, there are also some who are more empathetic. They range in age, gender and lifestyles as a cross-section of Australians.

Before arriving at a final 6, producers spoke to 700 people for 1-2 hours.

“It was exhausting,” says Dale.

“We quickly learned quite early in the process that rusted-on racists are much older in their years and generally don’t want to change their views. So it was a mix of people who had their time and were willing, because 4 weeks is a long period of time.”

As they travel across Australia visiting Indigenous communities, opinions begin to waver and serve the storytelling. But Dale admits there were no guarantees this would be the case.

“You never know, so you choose people (for whom) you have a gut instinct that may be predisposed to change, or you can see their views are misinformed or based on what people have told them,” he said.

“We didn’t want just rusted-on racists. That’s an easy position. We wanted more complexity.”

The six – Jasmine, Bo-dene, Trent, Alice, Sandy and Marcus – are tested and confronted while the series profiles Aboriginal Australia – ‘its beauty, culture, history and tradition, its problems and its hope.’

Blackfella Films, which had produced First Australians and The Tall Man for SBS, was asked by the broadcaster to come up with a show about Indigenous Australia “that has more cut through.”

“We thought we should make a programme that is more from the point of view of non-Indigenous Australians,” Dale explains.

“6 out of 10 Australians (having had no Indigenous contact) was a good, simple premise to hang a show off. The more simple the idea, often, the better the show. The more convoluted the more trouble you have making the show.”

While there are similarities to Go Back to Where You Came From, Dale notes UK ‘immersive’ titles including Filthy Rich and Homeless, Blood Sweat and Take Aways, and Wife Swap.

Go Back is the Australian iteration of those shows which are immersive experiences in that genre, which the UK has been making for about 15 years.

Secret Millionaire was huge in the UK. I don’t think Go Back is the start of that genre, as it were. I feel it’s the first fantastic arrival of that show in Australia. It was an incredibly well-made programme.

“So First Contact is in that vein.

“These shows inherently have that feeling because you’re making them for the people that don’t normally engage.

“Our challenge is to engage audiences with indigenous stories in the same way that they engage with other storytelling.”

In scenarios in city, outback and the Top End, the 6 are put in situations to try and confront some of the commonly-held stereotypes about Aboriginal people.

SBS screens the project across three nights, bringing to an end the 18 months Dale worked on the project.

Ray Martin serves as documentary tour guide across the three episodes, explaining each scenario and listening to reactions of the 6 participants. It’s hoped his profile will help bring a broad audience to the work.

“Ray was great. He was old school, shake hands, we had a coffee and said ‘Are you interested?’ He asked about the dates and said ‘Right I’m on.’ There were no lengthy, drawn-out negotiations,” says Dale.

“When I asked to talk about money he said ‘It’s great you have money to pay me but I would have done it for nothing.’

“Ray has a long history of being involved in Indigenous issues.

“He was very good with the participants. He talked to them a lot and they felt very comfortable with someone like him around. He was incredibly gracious meeting the communities, spending time in schools. Very generous with his time.”

First Contact airs 8:30pm Tuesday – Thursday on SBS ONE. An Insight discussion follows at 9:30pm Thursday.

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