Jealousy, mental illness, benefit fraud, family dysfunction, juvenile crime; these are just some of the gritty urban issues explored in Redfern Now, the first drama series written, directed and produced by indigenous Australians.
The issues and the impact they have on the lives and relationships of residents of the inner Sydney suburb of Redfern are explored in six self-contained episodes starring a mixture of Australia's best-known indigenous actors and newcomers, many of them WAAPA graduates or from WA.
Shareena Clanton, a 2010 WAAPA graduate, plays Lily, a mentally ill mother struggling to raise her children opposite Leah Purcell as her older sister, Grace, in the opening episode, Family.
Kelton Pell (The Circuit, Cloudstreet) stars in Raymond as an upstanding community member whose wife Lorraine (Deborah Mailman) is accused of benefit fraud. The episode is directed by Wayne Blair and also stars WAAPA graduate Jimi Bani (Mabo).
Blair, who directed the hit film The Sapphires, stars with Stephen Curry in the final episode of the series, Pretty Boy Blue, as a police officer whose loyalties are tested when his community is rocked by a death in custody.
Dean Daley-Jones (Mad Bastards) takes the lead as a professional boxer recently released from prison and trying to reconnect with his family in the Purcell-directed Sweet Spot.
Story producer for the landmark series was BAFTA award-winning screen writer Jimmy McGovern, whose knack for showing how an isolated or seemingly insignificant incident can dramatically change lives was on show earlier this year in ABC1 series The Accused.
The Liverpudlian creator of Cracker, The Lakes and The Street made several trips to Australia to work with the writers of Redfern Now but said he knew nothing about Redfern, a suburb that is still working to shake its reputation for poverty and crime.
"To tell you the honest truth I think that's the reason they asked me to come. I came as a white Englishman and I was allowed to be an idiot," he says. "I was allowed to say offensive things, to be utterly open and unguarded and the Aboriginal people I worked with allowed that, they did not take offence. Because of that I felt we could all be extremely creative; you can't be creative if you are guarded."
McGovern's characters tend to be battlers and ordinary people who have made bad decisions, often with terrible repercussions.
Thankfully, the outcomes for the characters of Redfern Now are not so pessimistic; their stories also have resonance well beyond the indigenous community and borders of Redfern.
McGovern says he is at his happiest when writing about the white working class and was out of his comfort zone on Redfern Now. Yet he says the characters' outlook on life and humour is much the same and thinks British audiences would enjoy it.
"I think it's really good, I am really, really, proud of it, I pray it gets sold to England I really do. It's good enough, it's much better than a lot of stuff that is churned out over here. It deserves to be sold internationally.
"There is nothing in this apart from the elements of race that could not equally apply to working-class people on Merseyside, England."
McGovern thinks he is writing better now than he ever has but finds the process harder. He says he "hasn't been skint" since 1982 but can still immerse himself in stories of hardship. "I can honestly say I have known hardship; it might have been a long, long time ago but I have never forgotten it. So I have always got that well; I can go back to the well, drop the bucket in, I know what it's like.
"Apart from that, the basic emotions you still share them anyway — love, jealousy, anger, rage — all those things you draw on, they are just the same.
"So are the basic questions you ask yourself, how will I feel when I come to die, how will I look back upon my life, do I know I am a good man or not, am I a racist or not? That was an interesting thing, I found working with Aboriginal people answered that question for me. I knew for certain I was not a racist anymore. As a young boy I was; growing up in white society. Working with these people answered that question."Redfern Now airs Thursday at 8.30pm on ABC1.
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