Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Review #FirstContactSBS

The first episode of the three-part documentary series First Contact was a profoundly challenging event for a number of viewers, both black and white.

Some of the reasons for discomfiture were plain to see, if like me, you watched the first episode with one eye on Twitter.

First, a recap of Tuesday night’s explosive first episode:

The three-episode documentary series was 'inspired by statistics showing six of 10 Australians had no contact with Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander people'.

If we are to build better relationships between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians and non-Indigenous Australians we must first understand the underlying values and perceptions that shape this relationship.
Australian Reconciliation Barometer 2012
So began the quest to find 6 participants to film over four weeks in situations that would expose them to a diversity of Indigenous Australia lifestyles and perspectives.

The producers spoke to 700 people before choosing six participants. At a rate of one to two hours for each of the 700 candidates, that fact alone was worthy of a moment to pause and think about the flood of myths and negative stereotypes the interviewers were exposed to before deciding on two men and four women.

The participants were drawn from large population centres spread between Brisbane and Melbourne. Similarly the majority of the Indigenous Australian population resides across the same general footprint, in rural, regional and city centres between Rockhampton and Melbourne. [ABS 2011]

It occurred to me that at least two of the ‘guests’ would have had opportunities to gain (if only limited) insights, ie Logan has a large Aboriginal population and another participant confirmed he’d met Indigenous families in his work as a law enforcement officer.

The six participants were:
Jasmine 33 Mother of 4, Logan QLD
Alice 31 Food nutrition student Gold Coast QLD 
Trent 28 Law enforcement officer, Western Sydney  
Bo-Dene 25 Supermarket worker, Melbourne VIC
Marcus 23 Part-time photographer/surfer, Sydney 
Sandy 41 Mortgage broker, Newcastle*
*It was revealed today that Sandy withdrew during the first episode.

The first episode opened with a selection of their initial thoughts on Indigenous Australians, in their own words:
 "Petrol-sniffing and drug-taking." ... "They've got plasma TVs but no food." ... "I'm Australian. I was born here, just like they were." ... "We give them houses, they burn them down." ... "Aboriginal people are definitely more disadvantaged." ... "They get so much more than us." ... "Everything costs more for me, but why is it less for them?" ... "A lot of freeloading." ... "Having this free ride, and I'm working my arse off." ... "Classing themselves as Aboriginal to get more welfare." ... "I've had very little to do with Indigenous people." ... "When it comes to brains, unfortunately ... " ... "Aboriginal people keep using the past. Move on." ... "You think it's racist? Well, I don't f*cking care.'
The promotional material promised that First Contact would get Australia talking.

There was no problem fulfilling that objective - the documentary series achieved that weeks before the first episode was broadcast. The trailers were enough for trepidation from some Indigenous people because of the airing of such blatantly racist views, and had others questioning whether this was the type of content that's welcome or proper for screening on NITV, the only Indigenous free to air channel.
The episode went to air at 8.30pm and Twitter was at a rolling boil within seconds. The official account for SBS tweeted at 9.04pm that hashtag #FirstContactSBS was trending worldwide. This is a huge response for a show that due to timezones had only been on air for thirty minutes in three Australian states: NSW, Victoria and Tasmania (though granted, they are the most populous states).

The disclosures of the six participants were bold and distasteful, rarely deviating from ignorant statements that I’ve heard many times before. I was mildly surprised to hear Ms Logan remark at the table that she’d expected an inner city Aboriginal family would eat ‘bugs’ and not the steak and salad she’d just been served. Seriously?

Was this an upsetting production to watch?

Despite it's ability to drag and swallow a person whole like a giant black hole, the suggestion remains that a person has a choice how they respond to racism. I’ve been affected in some way by racism my entire life and it wasn't from my carelessness. I look Aboriginal or of a type that makes people wonder ‘what is she?’ or suspect that what ever it is, it can’t be good. 

Have you experienced suspicion so strong that a shopkeeper would quite possibly glow in the dark? I think I have on more than a few occasions. I wonder if it would ease their mind or slow their  scurry to see what I'm doing at the rear of their shop, if I told them I am a grandmother? 

So it was satisfying viewing how quickly the First Contact pilgrims were edited, and revised their sight unseen harsh assessment of the Indigenous participants. There was so much Twitter chat, more than one observer referred to a social media frenzy

Then during the multiple threads of conversations the  Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage Report 2014 popped up on my radar. Overall, the findings are alarming.

Released biennially, the Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage Reports have been 'measuring the wellbeing and examining whether policies and programs are achieving positive outcomes for Indigenous Australians' since 2003.

The Report contains some good news: several health outcomes have improved, including increased life expectancy and lower child mortality. However, rates of disability and chronic disease remain high, mental health outcomes have not improved, and hospitalisation rates for self-harm have increased.

But by other measures, Indigenous people are going backwards in the worst possible way.

Incarceration rates have skyrocketed. There’s a danger of normalizing prison. This means that rather than constituting a wrong turn in the road, there is only one road open and it goes straight to jail.

Adult mental health issues – high/very high levels of psychological distress - jumped in the period upto 2013, and the suicide rate for Indigenous people is double the rate for non-Indigenous people. Why? Most recent, the fear generated by repeal of s.18c of the Racial Discrimination Act hung heavily over the Indigenous community, but it was already afflicted with a heightened state of anxiety and disharmony from intergenerational trauma, poverty and lack of choices. These are just some issues in a long list of threats to Indigenous people's well being, and self harm and suicide were already at crisis levels in the Indigenous community. 

Rather than detail them here, please take the time to read the report here for the break down of suicide and self harm data across age groups and states and territories.
A reflection.Some years ago I worked in a small remote community. Within barely a few months there were five tragedies. I knew the community wasn’t a magnet for outsiders but I’d seen the news stories. You know the ones, where teams descend on a community and provide counseling and support to the young ones and families. But no one came. Not only did no one come, no one in town was able to become involved. I was shocked. I understood why, but it was a wake up call that help had to occur from inside. No one was coming to talk, or ask questions, or sit there and listen. It was years ago but now people look back on that time as the good old days. It’s far worse now that the bad ways have taken hold. And no one expects help to come out their way anymore. 
First Contact delivered on it's promise of triggering much to talk about. I was given the uncommon chance of a finger workout on a Tuesday night, as I kept an eye on the documentary while texting, and all the while getting deep into tweet chats about racism and Indigenous responses to institutionalized racism. 

For the most part the hashtag and timeline was heavy with recommendations that First Contact was ‘must see’ tv.

The series was produced by Black Fella Films (Redfern Now, The Tall Man and the meticulously researched six-episode documentary series on Indigenous Australians, First Australians).

I’ve never seen a documentary - of Indigenous content - receive so much positive press before it had screened. The recommendations continued during and after the episode had screened. Then people retreated to draft their thoughts, confessions and aspirations.

The brusque examination of Indigenous identity within the first half of episode one was not a welcome sight for those who are frequently asked and don't find social media a culturally safe place to discuss identity issues. The guests (now aka 'the racists') weren't rewarded for expressing capitulation of their negatively stereotypical views on the Indigenous representations of home and business ownership, and education goals nurtured by loving families. 

First Contact is essential viewing for the one elusive and essential quality that Black Fella Films has delivered on. This production engages an audience. 

Attempts to talk about racism were a cause of conflict every time there was an incident on public transport or a football oval . Not so long ago, the best advice was breaking open and examining racism was a delicate operation. Following the shared experience of the first episode, in the count down to the next installment there was almost a carnival atmosphere. 

This is good news because we need to talk about racism of the institutional kind. That's far more challenging than a few myths and inappropriate words. 

I need to mention that much of the successful engagement emanates from the decision to go with Ray Martin, a host that people trust. A detractor would have to go a long way to shake that impression. The familiarity of his reputation provided a virtual cardigan that made people feel comfortable enough to rethink their convictions out loud, and flood the hashtag with tears.

Some have expressed doubts if epiphanies will translate into something more meaningful. And wondered if exposes of Indigenous lives encourages an expectation that rights to privacy are diluted. 

The social media landscape is already littered with half formed strategies to deal with racism. Do you call people out on it every time? Is it worth your time to confront racist minnows?  Name and shame or block and forget? Screening the series over three consecutive days takes binge TV to a new level, from the virtual to real life. People started talking on my Twitter timeline about getting together to watch the remaining two episodes. 

First Contact is more than a documentary series.

There are teaching resources here
Media release and interview here
Indigenous voices showcased on SBS Twitter here

A well orchestrated awareness campaign will embolden people to ask a question or two. What is 'sit down money'? What exactly does 'passive welfare' mean? What should Indigenous people's entitlements be? And lifting the veil on remote communities more or less invites outsiders to have a go at solving what seem like straight forward problems.

If only they also factor in positive examples, such as the Indigenous Governance Awards that were recently announced, or the achievements of Victor Morgan and Shane Phillips featured in Episode One of First Contact.

The truth is people like racism, or at best, kindly don't comprehend the damage it does and are comfortable with the rule of separating the blacks from the  whites. Racism has a pungency that's detectable when you've spent years living in blocks in different states and territories. It becomes second nature to apply this knowledge in every analysis, such as disturbing Report findings that red flag normalized self destructive behaviours for Indigenous Australians, or on discovering that 'Racist Sandy' was born 41 years ago in Alice Springs.  

There have been some odd games at Indigenous people's expense. For some it provided their livelihood and for others their seat at the table. We continue to be other people's experiment or an outlet for a fury that they wouldn't get away with anywhere else. Ongoing dehumanisation of Indigenous people has made this possible. 

There is a dark, sadness to our history and the intergenerational trauma that festers, that will take more to rectify, than a new commitment to excise ignorance. The frustration will be in trying to explain to a casual observer why it is not so simple to 'change'.

Within the Indigenous community, the same challenges will persist. The most effective way to marshal a severely depressed community is to make a pre-emptive strike to deter people from having a good hard look at the issues. And if that doesn’t work, set fire to something.

Target the emotions that require the least spark of concentration. Anger, hurt and shame are already close to the surface.

I know how they feel. These are not merely statistics. They have names and faces. We are heartbroken. They will not stop until enough of us agree one more is too many.
We’re just giving you an insight, behind all those ugly faces you might see in front of you. You take this back with you. And then you might communicate differently with them. And then see them not as lawbreakers, see them just as people, that are trying to survive in a different environment. --- Marcus Mungal Lacey NYINYINKAY HOMELAND, ARNHEM LAND, NT

Assessment of Episode 1: First Contact is must see TV. The personal testimonials have been compelling viewing. The 'event' - the staging with all the additional resources - has created a safe place for people to talk about painful issues.
I'm interested in taking the conversation further.

Episode 2 #FirstContactSBS is here
Episode 3 #FirstContactSBS is here

More blog posts to come...


Next outings... 

9 December 2014
Live Storytelling

Inspiring and empowering innovators 
to help solve humanity's biggest challenges.


10 December 2014
OnDusk Blog Book 
Show & tell
Venue: TBC

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