This week TV features two local dramas featuring First Nations stories, both produced by Bunya Productions.
Mystery Road: Origin premieres tonight on ABC while True colors is shown for 4 nights as SBS/NITV’s first joint drama commission.
The latter is played by Rarriwuy Hick (Wentworth) as Detective Toni Alma a Mparntwe (Alice Springs) who is sent to the Aboriginal community Perda Theendar when a young girl is the victim of a suspicious car crash in an area restricted to men’s business only.
It is also the hometown she left as a child and has had nothing to do with since. While Toni is convinced that half of her family won’t talk to her, boss Rhonda insists: “At least some people will talk to you. No one will talk to us.”
But Toni finds other clues leading up to the crash that raise her suspicions, including brain hemorrhage following head injuries. Aiding her investigation is the local Copper and Uncle Samuel Alma (Warren H. Williams) who recites much of her dialogue in Arrernte. There are plenty of aunts in the mix too, including the roles of Trisha Morton-Smith and a host of first-time performers.
Miranda Otto plays art dealer Isabelle Martin, determined to bring indigenous art to Paris galleries, while Luke Arnold arrives as white detective Nick Gawler, who happens to be Toni’s ex.
There are supporting roles of Ben Oxenbould, Brendan Alma and Erroll Shand.
With the backdrop of Mparntwe (Alice Springs) and Yeperenye (East MacDonnell Ranges), the series captures the inhospitable yet beautiful landscape of the red centre. Cinematographer Eric Murray Lui draws on aerial shots to highlight isolation and survival, guided by directors Erica Glynn (also co-creator) and Steven McGregor (also writer) in slow-burn episodes.
One of the most interesting aspects of the tale is how the rules and traditions of the local community collide with Western law. On more than one occasion Toni claims that she cannot interview a male relative (indeed some men don’t even look her in the eye) and there are places she is forbidden to enter, yet justice will not be done without her ability to follow every track. It is up to Nick as a white man to do some tasks.
“The advantage of being white is that you can talk to anyone,” Toni tells him.
The sense of community, sometimes grappling with one’s weaknesses such as addiction to alcohol, is strong throughout.
“When something happens around here we all feel responsible,” says Samuel.
There are other cultural touches too, such as not being able to mention a deceased person’s name, tours to secret sites, and superstitions around sacred stones. It all adds to the tapestry and uniqueness of the story.
But it’s Rarriwuy Hick who is the glue here, as a modern woman who moves between two worlds – her past and her present – in one of her strongest cinematic performances yet.
If NITV has the luxury of commissioning more drama at this level with SBS, we’re all better off for it.
True Colors 8.30pm Monday to Thursday on SBS and NITV