• What it is like for young ones to grow up cultured on screen?, asks Taryn Marks and Anusha Duray (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
ANALYSIS: With the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population expected to increase in the coming years, media must ensure Indigenous experiences are authentically represented on-screen for this growing younger demographic.
Taryn Marks, Anusha Duray

30 Nov 2018 - 3:41 PM  UPDATED 20 Feb 2019 - 2:10 PM

What it is like for young ones to grow up cultured on screen?

By this, we mean through content on various platforms such as television and online, as well as existing in an ever-changing media landscape, in an age of greater diversity.

Today, for example, anyone with a smartphone is a potential content maker. YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat; these are all ways that our people can have their voices heard. 

Who are the on-screen aspirations for our future, for our “treaty making generation”?

As a mother of three ambitious young women, I [Taryn Marks] often reflect on their experience growing up Aboriginal in Australia compared the experience of me, my Father, Aunts, Uncles and my Nana.

My father went to a boarding school at a very young age to prevent him from being taken from his mother. Fortunately, he went on to become a qualified educator and is a cultural and language specialist.

Two of my three children now go to boarding school, by choice, and this is mostly an experience of great opportunity. This has meant being frequently uncomfortable in elite environments, evidently not supposed to be our normal, and in past generations through deliberate exclusion.

For my kids; they’re fair-skinned, not located on our Country and disconnected from Aboriginal family connections and language— all the things we know that make our spirits well.

Similar to my childhood and formative years, they’re still looking to international content to see themselves on-screen, particularly through drama— and although Aboriginal representation in media has improved, I believe they need to see excellence and achievement through more than just sport.

For many of our young people, there is so much opportunity, but does the compromise have to be an inconsistent cultural grounding? 

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What does this all mean when Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people are regularly represented in the media as subjects in public systems, such as child protection, out of home care and justice?

What does it mean for our children and young people who are without their own agency— to find their identity when in crisis or experiencing poverty?

What is the discourse of the country ever going to be, when we are inundated with negative imagery of our young ones?

What is the discourse of the country ever going to be, when we are inundated with negative imagery of our young ones?

The image of an under-aged Aboriginal young man, in juvenile detention in the Northern Territory of Australia in 2016, shocked the world and is still a highly emotive image today.

Most of us as practitioners of some kind know this image is a result of intergenerational trauma and the legacy of policies of child removal, family dysfunction and poverty, lack of access to culture, kin, and culturally appropriate support.

Professor Kerry Arabena of the First 1000 Days initiative Australia and member of the SBS Community Advisory Committee addresses this by presenting a different way; by shifting deficit language to aspiration.

“Our generation’s task is to do no more harm to our natural systems, ensure sustained capacity to care for country and prepare children for an uncertain future. The next generation, the treaty-making generation, will need to re-create human systems in the context of natural systems and to find ways to thrive and prosper,” she says.

Stories matter. Stories are how we make sense of the world and ourselves. 

At SBS and NITV we also believe this is necessary and, in fact, that there is an urgent need for acceleration, of strengths-based narratives on screen.

A recent study into Australian television and diversity, conducted by Screen Australia shows that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have achieved representation at approximately 5 per cent on screen, but like many Indigenous workforces, there is a lag and it is behind-the-screen across broadcasting and media. This means that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander custodians are not always leading the storytelling process.

Growing up, what I [Anusha Duray] was watching on Australian television screen was blindingly white, what I saw reflected on screen was nothing like myself, my family or my experience.

The impact of what this meant for me and my perception of beauty and who and what is valuable in this world was profound. I was absolutely desperate as a child and a teenager to find someone that reflected my community and family – sitting in front of the TV on Saturday morning to tape music videos of Prince, Janet Jackson, Yothu Yindi and Nenah Cherry.

Music was the one place I found people of colour. So any people of colour who came up on screen, I had my VHS ready and furiously pressed record. Apparently I wasn’t alone, with many of my colleagues and friends confessing they did exactly the same thing.

Now I work for a channel that not only represents Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples but brings to air World Indigenous and people of colour from all around the globe telling the stories they want to, in the way they want, rejecting the old school ethnographic documentaries and films of the past and bringing authentic voice to screen. Changing forever the experience I and so many of us had as children. 

Not only is this occurring in the “niche” world, we have also well and truly hit mainstream commercial success with our stars of stage and screen, which includes Deb Mailman, Aaron Pederson and Miranda Tapsell winning awards and dominating prime time. Not to mention, NITV’s Logie Award Winning Little J & Big Cuz and the multiple award-winning Grace Beside Me, NITV’s teen drama series and the channel’s first ever commissioned drama series.

Perhaps even more telling is we now have Thelma Plum as the face of Telstra, our leading telecommunication’s company, and Adam Goodes for David Jones, a major department store chain. These major advertising campaigns are extremely telling in a world where our content makers are more than sometimes being told we belong in the niche and are not “mainstream valued”. The advertising world is always more advanced by nature of the business with the most up-to-date statistics and audience figures, so not only to these campaigns topple this fallacy proving that not only are we mainstream, but are valued consumers also.

There are more than 300 cultural groups of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples who make up three percent of Australia’s current 23 million population.

The number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples is expected to grow in the coming years with the average age for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population considerably younger (21.8) than the non-Indigenous population (37.6 years), as of 2011.

When we look at our representation on-screen we are punching well above our weight, however, true representation means more Indigenous people behind the camera telling our stories in our way, with Indigenous key creatives behind every project. As US actor and political commentator, D.L Hugley says, "The most dangerous place for black people to live is in white people's imagination." Ensuring Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander have an authentic voice is paramount, but also, we must open more opportunities to generate economic sustainability for our practitioners.

When we look at our representation on-screen we are punching well above our weight, however true representation means more Indigenous people behind the camera telling our stories in our way, with Indigenous key creatives behind every project. 

In the past it has been frequently promoted that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander content is targeted only to our peoples. In furthering the children’s and youth strategy for SBS and NITV, we are working with a shift that this is content for all children, young people, their families and communities.

This may not seem like any major revelation, but we are having this discussion at a time when commercial networks are seeking to do less children’s television and quality Australian content generally is very hard to get financed, is expensive, particularly to do multi-series. 

It is well accepted that content can help improve children’s school readiness by building literacy and numeracy skills, resilience, social understanding and healthy behaviours. Evidence also supports that all children construct their ideas about race and social status very early in life.

If you could think of an international children’s program that, through video content, is directly reaching 156 million children per month in more than 150 countries ( 16 percent of the global population of children between 0 and 7 years), which would you guess? Yes, it’s Sesame Street.

Sesame Workshop is the single largest informal educator of young children around the world, using television, radio, videos, websites, and print content to preschool-age children, particularly where formal preschool systems are not well established or are beyond the reach of most of the population.

Australia’s own Wayne Denning of Carbon Creative, has worked with Sesame Street promoting Aboriginal culture to the world, it’s a brilliant partnership and its more of this that we need to see, and quickly.

Sesame Workshop as a framework has almost 50 years’ worth of knowledge and evidence on us, but as well as increased content, our focus is better understanding the evidence base, and promoting learning in both formal and informal environments.

We believe that providing access for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children and young people to historical and contemporary cultures and languages, and the opportunity to see their lived experience on screen— and supporting this content with educational resources —should be a cross government priority in Australia. 

This year Screen Australia Indigenous Department celebrated 25 years of existence. It is a fantastic milestone, especially when compared to the fact that Canada only launched its Aboriginal Office for Film in late 2017, and are only in the consultation phase of cultural protocols for film and television being established.

However APTN, Canada’s Aboriginal Peoples Television Network, has existed since 1999, while NITV launched in 2007– Maori TV, New Zealand’s Indigenous Channel, launched in 2004 but currently receives approximately three times the annual funding NITV receives.

We learn together from our brother and sisters across the world and the community of Indigenous filmmakers across the world is a small, supportive and tight one.

In October 2011, Åsa Simma (Sámi), with support from Australia’s own Darlene Johnson a Dunghutti woman wrote the International Declaration for Indigenous Cinema. It was accepted and recognised by the participants of the Indigenous Film Conference in Kautokeino, Sápmi .

This declaration has been the guiding force for International Indigenous film.

This declaration is spoken aloud at the opening night of every ImagineNATIVE Film Festival, the largest and longest running Indigenous Film Festival held in Toronto every October.

We the Indigenous screen storytellers

United in this northern corner of our mother, the earth

In a great assembly of wisdom we declare to all nations

We glory in our past

When our earth was nurturing our oral traditions

When night sky evoked  visions animated in our dreams

When the sun and the moon  became our parents in stories told

When storytelling made us all brothers and sisters

When our stories fostered great chiefs and leaders

When justice was encouraged in the stories told

We will

Hold and manage Indigenous cultural and intellectual property

Be recognized as the primary guardians and interpreters of our culture

Respect Indigenous individuals and communities

Nourish knowledge from our traditions to modern screen appearance

Use our skills to communicate with nature and all living things

Through screen storytelling heal our wounds

Through modern screen expression carry our stories to those not yet born

And thus through motion pictures make the invisible visible again

We vow to manage our own destiny and recover our complete humanity in pride

In being Indigenous screen storytellers.

It is our time, to not only re-tell history through the Indigenous lens, but ensure that there are no limitations on who can make programs, who can appear on screen, and what sorts of stories we choose to tell. 

We are limited by our own thoughts, our own beliefs and our imaginations. We reflect ourselves on our terms.


Taryn Marks, Senior Adviser Indigenous Policy and Strategy, SBS Melbourne. Taryn is a Wotjobaluk woman and a Director on the Australian Indigenous Mentoring Experience (AIME) Board. Taryn has qualifications and experience in health promotion and Indigenous mentoring, Reconciliation Action Plans, workforce, strategy, and organisational policy development. Prior to SBS, previous experience includes working in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health policy at a local, state and national level.

Anusha Duray, Acquisitions Manager, NITV Sydney. Anusha a Bundjalung woman, is a Director of NSW Women’s Legal Service, a member of the Aboriginal Women’s Consultation Network, completed the Chief Executive Women, an Australian Graduate School of Management, Women in Leadership of UNSW and with Bachelor of Arts, Indigenous Studies/English Literature. Anusha has produced a short film. 

These words have been transcribed from Taryn Marks and Anusha Duray's oral presentation at the Healing Our Spirit Worldwide conference on Tuesday, 27 November 2018. It has been edited for online use.