The controversy of making first contact

By 18 November 2016Interview, The latest

At the heart of the second series of SBS’ acclaimed First Contact is a desire to elevate the national conversation on Australia’s First Peoples, says Blackfella Films’ Jacob Hickey, who speaks to Amal Awad.

“You really do have to watch to the end,” says Jacob Hickey, producer and writer on the second series of SBS’ First Contact, a Logie Award-winning documentary hosted by Ray Martin.

First Contact, a journey of discovery for six people immersing themselves in Indigenous communities in Australia, is just that kind of show. With a spectrum of viewpoints, the expression of some controversial and emotionally-charged beliefs by non-Indigenous Australians can radically alter by the end of the journey.

“There’s a lot of debate out there,” says Hickey. “And that’s what this show can hopefully achieve – provoke debate, provoke the discussion, and Blackfellas are on the inside of that conversation, it’s not being had about them. They’re having it, and that’s what’s important.”

The program, which first aired in 2014, sees non-Indigenous Australians meet with Aboriginal people in remote Indigenous communities around the country to test their understanding of history and the current challenges facing Aboriginal people. The first series took “ordinary Australians” and measured the change, if any, the people experienced when it comes to their perceptions of Aboriginal people, Australia’s First Peoples. And it was met with criticism and acclaim, trending worldwide on Twitter and garnering two million viewers over three nights.

“… It was a fairly extraordinary response,” says Hickey. “You felt like you were in the middle of some storm. But I think there was an appetite to have this conversation … between Aboriginal people and non-Indigenous people and this relationship that exists in Australia.”

Blackfella Films, the team behind Deep Water, Redfern Now and Mabo, has made many factual shows but Hickey says a second series of First Contact required a different treatment in order to bring it to a larger audience. The team for the show, centrally comprising Hickey, and Blackfella Films’ Darren Dale and Rachel Perkins, knew that the “conversation” central to the show, if provocative, was not going to deliver “the perfect program” for all viewers. But Hickey says it’s “really healthy that people were critical and that people praised and that there were people in the middle”.

“Blackfella Films want to be in that space. They want to have this conversation.”

For its second outing, the team from Blackfella Films, with major investment from Screen Australia in association with Film Victoria and SBS, introduced a new layer to the examination of race relations – the visitors to these Indigenous communities would be well-known personalities. More specifically, this series, which will air over three nights this month, features singer-songwriter Natalie Imbruglia, controversial ex-One Nation politician David Oldfield, TV personality Ian ‘Dicko’ Dickson, former Miss Universe Australia Renae Ayris, actress Nicki Wendt and comedian Tom Ballard.

Ayris has already felt the sting of social media, with a preview in which she expresses some closeted views of Aboriginal Australians seeing her getting lashed online.

“It is the new world of social media, I suppose. I applaud [Renae] for standing up and taking part in the series. Whether you agree or disagree with what she says, it is just one thing that she says and she says many more things, and the most important thing is that she put her hand up and said, ‘Yeah I want to be part of this conversation, I want to put myself on the line like the others did’.”

As Liz Stevens, Screen Australia’s Senior Manager for Documentary, notes, Blackfella Films has pushed the concept of the first series even further. The result is a “compelling and moving three-part series, which provides a sometimes shockingly honest depiction into our views and attitudes of Aboriginal people”.

“I applaud and thank the Indigenous contributors for opening the door to their culture and way of life in all its complexity,” says Stevens.

Indeed, the six travellers get a lot of attention, but Hickey says “the stars of this are every inch the Aboriginal hosts who take part as well, because actually those are the people who give the alternative views, who challenge the opinions”.

“They’re the most significant side of the conversation in terms of sparking that debate. So having those guys on board is obviously critical for us and is everything. You have to spend that time having those conversations, having those consultations because you get better material for it.”

On the involvement of Indigenous communities, Hickey says Blackfella Films placed greater resources on consultations for this season.

“We spent time sitting there with Aboriginal people and their families. Given there was a series one, there was a shorthand this time around of course, because they had either watched series one or we could show them series one,” he says. “And so they felt they had an understanding of what we’re trying to achieve. Overwhelmingly, they wanted to partake, I can’t remember anyone who didn’t. In fact, people were chomping at the bit to be involved.”

The appetite for the show to be made was “just overwhelming”, says Hickey, noting that he and executive producer Dale were told, “As if we haven’t heard all of this before. We hear this every day. We’re not going to have a problem hearing it on a TV show … Get it out there.”

And wherever possible, Hickey says Blackfella Films always tries to employ local people in the communities in production, for example with local liaisons.

“We always want to give Aboriginal people opportunities to be part of Blackfella Films productions. Redfern Now is a landmark example of that. We want to do that in factual, too.”

Meanwhile, the emotionally-charged program benefits from the experience of its six subjects, which allowed them to go deeper in the second series.

“In a show that will hopefully be brought to a lot of people, you’ve got these high-profile people arguing about Constitutional recognition with Aboriginal people on their ancestral lands. That’s, hopefully, good television. It’s certainly important television, and that’s the level of debate we wanted to have this time around, and I think we could have it with these six high-profile people.”

Like the people on screen, audiences feel equally confronted and challenged, and it may provoke conversations in the home and the workplace, adds Hickey.

“These shows are not definitive. These shows don’t answer all the questions. They prompt questions, that’s what ideally they do. I hope they do.”

Produced by Blackfella Films (Deep Water, Redfern Now, Mabo) with major investment from Screen Australia in association with Film Victoria and SBS, First Contact season 2 will air over three nights – Tuesday 29 November, Wednesday 30 November and Thursday 1 December – at 8.30pm each night on SBS and NITV simultaneously. #FirstContact

Amal Awad is a Sydney-based writer and author. She is a regular contributor to SBS Life and is currently writing a new book called Beyond Veiled Clichés: The Lives of Arab Women.

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