Blue Water Empire

The history of the Torres Strait Islands may be largely unknown by the majority of those on mainland Australia, but a new 3 part series on ABC hopes to unravel its rich stories.

Blue Water Empire is a labor of love for writer / actor / producer and Torres Strait Islander Aaron Fa’Aoso (Black Comedy, The Straits), who has partnered with Bunya Productions (Mystery Road). Docudramas are a tricky genre to pull off, but Blue Water Empire will combine narration, archival footage, facts and re-enactments to try to bring it all to life.

Torres Strait Islanders are of Melanesian heritage and do not identify as Australian Aboriginal. There are more than 200 islands between Cape York Peninsula and New Guinea, first discovered by Spanish navigator Luís Vaez de Torres in 1606. They are a proudly seafaring culture, but who are in a long fight for their sea rights.

Fa’Aoso narrates as we learn about the various island groups, the importance of totems, land ownership and fishing. Assorted locals are interspersed with historic and cultural information, alongside film, photos and paintings.

Early scenes are swift to depict violence  from headhunters from New Guinea, through grisly re-enactments, including with blood splattered on the camera lens just so you’re in no doubt. This is Game of Thrones primitive-style.

One sequence surrounding the killing of European shipwreck survivors is interesting for the adoption of one young sailor, John Ireland and a baby William D’Oyley, later rescued by Europeans in 1835. This is dramatised briefly with actors including Jimi Bani, Merwez Whaleboat, Matthew Predny and Jeremy Lindsay Taylor.

Fa’Aoso also features as local fisherman John Joseph who works with Captain Banner (Ryan Corr) to harvest pearls, and a trade economy under island King Kebisu (Bani). Corr’s hard work at local language is most impressive.

Yet while the heart is in the right place, the execution comes across as far too history-class. It swings from museum-style audio visuals to actors dramatising, and within these the performances are sometimes uneven.

While it’s clear the budget could not afford full-scale sailing ships and wardrobe, I’m not convinced edited footage or paintings are sufficient to cover such cracks. There’s a reason docudramas are so hard to pull off, and I feel this might have succeeded more by sticking to one lane, or a more expanded drama on a story such as the John Ireland incident.

In 2019 documentaries need to be more contemporary in their approach. Sam Neill’s recent Cook travel doco was a great exercise in maritime history, and Fa’Aoso could be a modern guide looking back on heritage, through a similar lens.

It’s taken a long time for this to reach screen, but Blue Water Empire will require some commitment to connect with its message.

Blue Water Empire airs 8:30pm Tuesday on ABC.

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