“First Contact” (an SBS documentary that aired on TV in November) began for us when Jason arrived home from work one night with a photo of himself and Ray Martin on his phone. On a normal busy day, the schedule had him flying to Nyinyikay to bring passengers back to Elcho Island. His flight transported Ray and a number of film crew members here, while another plane took a huge pile of stuff. At that time little was known about what the show was actually about. We knew it was an SBS documentary about non indigenous people and the stereotypes that people hold about indigenous people. But that was all. So we waited, saw previews and hoped, perhaps for Jason’s 15 minutes of fame? And hoped, perhaps for an accurate representation in media, of what we see each day as we live in this place. But alas, it was not to be. I have started and stopped writing this blog several times over the few weeks. I get all fired up and begin to write, but the complexity of the issues overwhelm me and I stop. I talk to family members and friends on the phone who ask, is that really what Galiwin’ku is like? And so my motivation kicks in again… and so i write. I know many of our friends and family watched this show because of the connection with us, which spurs me on again to respond with truth in response to the distortion presented on your televisions. As a family who have lived within three indigenous communities, throughout the last three years, perhaps we have some experiences to draw upon and some insights to share, so here goes… The show began with a group of “typical aussies” and their preconceived ideas about what indigenous people are like. The viewpoints of the participants on the show are held by many people we know and have met. People often raise the same issues with us when we are outside of Arnhem Land. But as these people spoke so proudly and with such conviction about a group of people, who they largely knew nothing about, i felt hurt. Not just because their comments were, by their own admission, ignorant and uninformed in the most part, but because these beliefs are generalisations, stereotypes, grand statements that do not account for the difference of individuals. And that’s what injured me, was that these grand statements don’t fit with the individuals who have loved, cared and shared their lives with me for the last three years. I felt the urge to say, “Don’t speak like that about my friends!” Unfortunately the brutal, hard hitting and offensive style of journalism used to get a reaction from their viewers, was painful for me. So i was a little relieved as the show began and we saw life in Sydney through two indigenous families living there, I began to appreciate a little of how the show was constructed. I was glad that they showed indigenous people in different parts of Australia, doing different things. Because unlike the stereotyped views held by many of the participants, not all indigenous people are the same. I did like the way the show deliberately sought to open the eyes of the participants, and the viewers to indigenous people in urban areas, traditional homelands, larger communities and more. This aspect of the show alone, perhaps was eye opening for many. But then they arrived in Arnhem Land! The show captured the natural beauty of the area so well. It showed many things that we have to come to love about this place, it’s beauty, the gorgeous smiling children who affectionately befriend you, the slower pace of life, the sense of humour of many indigenous people. But the film makers glossed over so many of the bigger issues of life in this area. So much of one episode was spent on the situation with the turtle, a scene even i would not like to witness as i am squeamish with blood. But neither could i participate in dissections when i was in high school! Why did they waste that precious screen time on a side issue, when the bigger questions of life here were being left untouched? Why didn’t they ask Marcus and his family why they wanted to live in that place? Why didn’t they ask him what he did there and why? Yes, these conversations probably did happen, but it is sad that the answers weren’t shown as part of the show, as he is a man who is fighting hard for the education of his family on their traditional land.
The scene where the group stood at an airport with Ray Martin explaining they would stay the night on Elcho Island was filmed with Jason standing in the background. I really struggled with this section of the show for so many reasons. It began with the van ride through town with the girls commenting about how dangerous and unsafe this community was, because a rock was thrown at them. I was simultaneously angry and crying over their reactions to my current home town. In a year of living here, we have never had a rock thrown at us or our car. Other friends who have lived here longer than i, echoed the same story. That was not normal for this place. So it leaves me wondering, was that what the sound really was? Was this just a bit of creative license to get a good reaction? Jason joked that the bang was from kids trying to get mangoes from the trees and one hit the van on the way down. I wonder if perhaps word had got around about some of the comments that had been made in Nyinykay and this was someone’s reaction to the show’s participants. I guess we’ll never know really. But I have never felt unsafe here. I did in Numbulwar often. So it hurt me to see a place that is home be described in such an untruthful way. Then they took the gang of participants to Timmy’s house for the evening. We know Timmy. He and Jason often chat and we have bought some of his artwork from him. I had never seen inside his house though, although it appeared just like many other homes i have visited over the years. It was cool to see the photo collage on his wall, with one of the central photos being of the celebration of the Bible translation into the local language that happened several years ago. We all notice different things about someone’s home don’t we? To be invited into an indigenous person’s home is a very personal and precious gift, one that should be honoured, rather than criticised and complained about. This part of the show really made me mad as some of the comments made by the participants were so ignorant, not just of indigenous people but of life in the tropics and in remote areas generally. Let me vent about just a few! Mould is a reality here. Mould grows on walls, ceilings, clothes, shoes, Bible covers, belts and more. You will find it everywhere, and even if you clean it off regularly, it WILL grow back. Furniture, curtains and household furniture is hard to get here and very expensive. ALPA, the local store only stocks white goods, entertainment items and food supplies. So the washing machine that was proudly displayed in the laundry, probably cost at least double what you would pay for it in major cities of Australia. The only way to have furniture in your homes here is to have it barged here, buy second hand or make it yourself. There is no Freedom Furniture to just pop down the road to purchase all you need. Purchasing such items is possible, but is a process filled with paperwork, negotiation and a lot of money. Just as an aside, I did notice that although the participants complained about their accommodation for the night, there were packages of Kmart brand pillows in the background and shiny new air mattresses – perhaps they weren’t roughing it as much as their complaining comments suggested. I’m glad they showed the beautifully complex artwork that Margaret made, and that they very briefly showed the art centre here. But sadly, that was the only mention of beauty of this place. Elcho island and its surrounds are intensely beautiful. Palm trees, mango trees, frangipani flowers, the colours of the sea, brilliantly red dirt, miles of untouched beaches, weird and unique rock formations… i could go on…. but none of this was shown. Instead, they focused in on the poverty of the place… Yes there is poverty. The fact is that this community does have broken down houses, but there are nice ones too. Yes there is rubbish, but there are also gardens and lawns that would make the best suburban gardener jealous. Yes the power does go off occasionally. But not often. We have more reliable power here than in Gove. There are high rates of unemployment, preventable disease, suicide and domestic violence. But why? This was a question that was barely addressed. In some ways, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the filmmakers took the easy approach in this film. I don’t underestimate the time, energy and stress it took to make such a film. But they took the easy way by not delving into the bigger issues of life here. The longer i live in indigenous communities the more i realise how complex the pressures on individuals living here really are. The complex and intensely identity defining role of family and land cannot be ignored. This issue is one that is so phenomenally huge in any discussion of indigenous people and their lives, and one that the series did little to address. It was mentioned briefly in relation to caring for graves of elders, but it is so much bigger than that. All of these issues, were just my reactions and perhaps not worthy of a blog or a rant to the wider world, until a few night’s ago Timmy came by to visit. Jason greeted him at the door jokingly calling him a “movie star.” Timmy shared the joke and but as the conversation progressed he revealed his hurt at how he and his family had been shown on the show. He was hurt by things that the participants said about him and his family when he was not present. I couldn’t help but think how hurt i would be in the same situation. Imagine you had guests for a period of time who were polite to your face, but later you watched them say hurtful things about your family, your home and your land on your television. I would find that exceptionally hurtful and so did he. It makes me wonder if the local people in the show really understood what they were agreeing to. Were they warned or assisted with how to process what was actually shown on the television program? Or was the need for good entertainment, worth the sacrifice of disappointed indigenous hosts? One day, the public address system here in town was going for most of the morning. It was all in the local language, so my understanding was limited, but SBS was one of the words often mentioned. Timmy had written an article about his thoughts on the show, which had been published in a local newspaper. And the community was declaring loud and strong their hopes and dreams for their home and their frustrations at what had been shown to the nation of their place and people. A few of the comments he made are below…. “I feel a bit of shame watching the show. I opened my door and heart to these people so they could learn about Yolngu culture. Balanda (White people) and Yolgnu need to learn and grow together. “They said our community was scary but we are nice people and good people. If Balanda come here we want to share our culture. “I would take them hunting for fish, for crab, to bungul (ceremony) and I would teach them to dance. I have danced for three Prime Ministers – Julia Gillard, Bob Hawke and John Howard.” Other locals agreed. Yolngu Remote Youth Leadership Mentor Ted Gondarra told the paper the program was a “disgraceful way to look at Galiwinku”. “The comments were very harsh and not appropriate,” he said. “The show made out that our island is like a third world country. We Yolngu live by our own unique balance of life, culture and land and we care for our country and people. “I felt upset by the program as it was discrimination against our lifestyle and personality.” Others with connections to this place have blogged their feelings too…. if you care to read some other opinions…. http://dailyreview.crikey.com.au/sbs-first-and-last-contact-with-galiwinku/16241 https://newmatilda.com/2014/11/30/sbs-first-contact-leaves-sour-taste-community-opened-its-hearts-and-homes So a few months on… i still haven’t posted this blog! Should i just bin it? Well i would, but conversations i had with many friends and family while we were at home in Victoria suggest that maybe we shouldn’t bin it. Many of you were concerned about our safety after watching this show. Many of you shared our anger with the biased way in which our community was portrayed. To be honest, i didn’t know how to conclude this blog… the wrestle with injustice left me angry and sad, but there was no nice simple conclusion to end it on. I am someone who likes a happy ending… and in this situation i was struggling to find one. However, just before we left, Timmy, the host of the contestants in the show came to visit again. He stayed and chatted for ages. He and Jason looked at locations on Google earth, he shared with us some of his story and we established how we are related to him in the Yolgnu kinship system. He is Jason’s “brother”. So perhaps this is our conclusion…. there is lots to be angry and sad about in how this show portrayed our friends and our home… but for us, the conversations it has produced with many of you have been precious. But also the friendships with our Yolgnu neighbours and family that have been developed and strengthened through a unified sense of injustice and hurt, are the rainbows in a stormy situation.