I grew up in a time where Kamahl was the most famous, if not the only, brown person on television. The whole family would run to our set to watch him sing. But as I got older, diversity progressed and I knew there was a safe place on TV for me. In high school in the late 80s, it was the influence of ABC program, Blackout. The girl I wanted to be was Michelle Tauhine and the boy I had a crush on was her co-host Aaron Pederson.
Together they presented engaging positive stories from my community that inspired me and gave me a powerful sense of pride.
But television is a diverse ecosystem and with uplift also comes anguish. A headline in this week's Guardian asked; Is chronicling Indigenous despair the only way we can get on television? This comes off the back of Norma, a Jagera woman, and her plight which is documented in SBS’ Struggle Street series. In her commentary, author Dr Chelsea Bond raises many excellent points, one being that benevolence can be an apparatus of white control over black affairs. However, the idea that despair is a mandatory prerequisite for inclusion in the media has not been my experience working in the industry over many years and in recent times.
When I finally decided on a career path after school, I followed Tauhine and Pederson into media. I started out as a trainee at SBS where an Indigenous unit founded by Uncle Lester Bostock (now passed), was being built up by a strong Torres Strait Islander man, Llew Cleaver.
Llew was the executive producer and although we didn’t always agree, I always felt proud that my boss was Indigenous just like me. In the 1990s he began recruiting a team of deadly black creatives which included Danny Cavanagh (now passed), Tanith Carroll, Kris Flanders, Lorna O’Shane, John Harding and the luminary of the industry, Karla Grant.
I was so shy to work with Karla, as she was already famous for her program on Channel 10, Aboriginal Australia which she produced, directed and presented. The national magazine style program was also produced on behalf of ATSIC. From emu farms to arts centres, and Keating’s historic Redfern Statement, the program covered engaging stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander achievement from our many nations.
Sometimes if you want to honour people accordingly, despair can the only appropriate response.
Like Aboriginal Australia, our new 1990s program ICAM, which aired weekly on SBS primetime, also told stories from our community; stories of resilience, excellence, humour and love. However, amongst the love and laughter, sometimes, if you want to honour people accordingly, despair can be the only appropriate response. And when despair was appropriate, ICAM also covered the tragedies in our community.
Making prominence then was the unmasking of forced removals of Aboriginal children from their families. This did not simply make for ‘good television’. The testimonials in our coverage were part of the ground breaking inquiry “Bringing Them Home” and the weight of the reporting that we and other broadcasters did undoubtedly influenced the public campaign for the nation to say “sorry”, which eventuated in the Prime Minister apologising to the Stolen Generations in 2007.
This is not a lone example. By chronicling despair, compelling stories have lead the national agenda and driven change many times. For example, NITV supported filmmaker Larissa Behrendt who kept the focus on the campaign for justice in the case of Bowraville Murders which is now before the courts. And just last week, a story on Stolen Generations children left with criminal records on The Point prompted a Victorian government review of the issue.
Today, our media landscape looks very different to Kamahl singing The Elephant Song on primetime. Norma was not the only Aboriginal person on Australian television on Tuesday night. Nor was she the only one who trended on social media or made headlines the following morning. Struggle Street competed for ratings against the ARIA Awards where AB Original took home two awards and lead the celebration of music and change. As well as ABC’s Screen Time which hosted Nakkiah Lui as a panelist. And of course, the entire schedule of NITV (after all, we are a 24-7 free to air channel made up of primarily First Nations’ content) which included feel-good viewing like, Our Stories and Colour Theory.
Blackfellas are currently overrepresented in the media industry as per our population and we are increasing our numbers every year.
In fact, blackfellas are currently overrepresented in the media industry as per our population and we are increasing our numbers every year. As NITV Channel Manager, Tanya Orman puts it, “after decades of action, Indigenous representation on screen is reflecting community levels.” This does not mean there isn’t still work to do. We need to ensure that our stories are told our way.
But fortunately, this year has been a very successful one for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander storytelling. Kicking off with ‘Australia’s answer to The Kardashians’ with Family Rules to the much anticipated second season of Cleverman, and screening the first Indigenous children’s animation Little J & Big Cuz, to name a few. We have also seen more Indigenous actors in roles on television than ever before with Jessica Mauboy, Miranda Tapsell and Rob Collins all dominating in mainstream drama series. As well as a number of NITV documentaries being celebrated at major film festivals both here and overseas including, We Don’t Need a Map opening this year’s Sydney film festival.
These stories are creative, funny, profound and surprising. Any despair they contain is far outweighed by their raw honesty and truth, and the coming together of both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australia to watch, and above all, to learn.
When ICAM wound down production back in 2001, Karla Grant then developed Living Black, which is now the country’s longest running Indigenous current affairs program on Australian television. During its 15 year run, the program highlighted the issues affecting Indigenous Australians without being limited to narratives of trauma, disadvantage or despair.
With mass content comes mass production and we blackfellas make up some of the country’s most accomplished journalists, producers, directors and filmmakers. To question whether black pain is a shoe-in onto the small screen is blind to the proud tradition of staunch Indigenous practitioners who have been making content for national television for years.
Last night NITV responded to Struggle Street with a special episode of The Point, featuring Norma who was recently being evicted from her home by a large number of Police. Norma’s story is sad, but I believe in the strength of our people to tell the truth will drive change.
Julie Nimmo is a Wiradjuri woman and award-winning journalist. She is an Executive Producer at NITV and was Executive Producer and co-host of Struggle Street: The Point Responds.
The new series of Struggle Street starts Tuesday 28 November 8.30pm on SBS.
A two-week event: Tuesday-Thursday.
Struggle Street series two is produced by KEO Films with funding support from Screen Australia and Film Victoria.