Home truths

Riots, violence, drugs, poverty - the inner Sydney suburb of Redfern is no urban idyll. With its terraces and railyards, the small, tight-knit community has become a byword for bad news; shorthand not only for working class and underprivileged but, perhaps most of all, black. ''It's an intimidating place,'' says actor Jimi Bani, a member of the Wagadagam people from the Torres Strait. ''When you are in Cairns and you hear the word Redfern, you think 'trouble'.''

And yet for such storied turf, Redfern has remained strangely absent from our television screens, at least when it comes to drama. But that changes with the launch on the ABC this week of Redfern Now, a six-part series that centres on and explores contemporary indigenous city life.

The series, which is produced, written and directed by indigenous filmmakers, takes us into the households of six different families whose lives are changed by a seemingly insignificant incident - an untimely phone call or a flash of pride; a passing observation or a lost temper; a moment of casual cruelty.

''It's a bit like The Slap,'' says Wayne Blair, who directs one episode and acts in another two, ''in that there are no stereotypes, just normal people trying to get by, day to day, with all the joy and sadness that offers.''

For Blair, whose recent life has been consumed by the big-screen hit The Sapphires, working with an all-black team might not seem that strange.

But for the industry, Redfern Now is very much a landmark moment, with the series being not only written and produced by blackfellas but brought alive by a virtually all-indigenous cast featuring, among others, Leah Purcell (Somersault, Lantana), Kelton Pell (Cloudstreet, The Circuit), Bani (Mabo, The Straits), and Deborah Mailman (Mabo, The Sapphires).

''It certainly makes it more authentic,'' Blair says. ''And [white] Australians will love it, it'll be a breath of fresh air for them, a real revelation.''

The series is the first piece of drama produced by the ABC's Indigenous Department, which saw in Redfern Now not only an opportunity for making great television but, perhaps more importantly, a chance to unlock a great untapped reservoir of indigenous screenwriting. ''We have fantastic indigenous writers in this country,'' the producer, Miranda Dear, explains. ''But a lot of them don't necessarily have long-form TV drama experience.''

And so, following a call for entries (the only prerequisite being that the stories had to be set in Redfern), a select group of finalists got what most writers worth their Olivettis would consider the chance of a lifetime - to work with Jimmy McGovern. The BAFTA-award-winning McGovern, who was born in Liverpool, is perhaps best known for his drama series Cracker, starring Robbie Coltrane. Yet his real metier could more broadly be described as the marginalised, with a string of credits that explore the compellingly unglamorous existences of average people, and what film classifiers might call ''socially challenging'' storylines.

Starting in December 2010, McGovern held a series of workshops with the indigenous writers, honing their stories, mining their minds, searching for what McGovern calls ''emotional truth''.

''We drove the writers into the ground,'' he says. ''Two four-hour sessions every day, just talking story; burrowing down, asking, 'is this exciting? Is this convincing'? And because part of the exercise was to bring on Aboriginal writers, we had to make sure that they wrote every word.''

McGovern says he knew virtually nothing of Aboriginal Australia but that this was, if anything, an advantage. ''The writers were incredibly unguarded and open,'' he says. ''In a way, they granted me the right to be stupid and to offend.

I could go in there and say things that no white Australian could have gotten away with.''

In one instance, McGovern was talking about shipping ports, when he turned to one of the Aboriginal woman writers and said, '''Of course, our ports in England have a much longer history than yours.'

I mean, to me, as a typical white man, Australian history only began in 1788. But I didn't realise how it must have sounded at the time.''

The woman took it on the chin. ''She gave me this patient smile.''

McGovern says, consequently, ''I just forget that these were 'oppressed black people'. I also identified with the Aboriginal sense of humour; it's very akin to Scouse sense of humour, the way they find humour in adversity.''

The collaboration proved fruitful, producing storylines of uncommon complexity and nuance. In ''Joyride'' (written by Michelle Blanchard), Coral (Tessa Rose), a woman in her mid-50s, lonely and estranged from her family, suspects her daughter of child abuse. In ''Family'' (Danielle MacLean), a woman (Leah Purcell) is forced to foster her nephew when her sister becomes mentally ill.

In ''Raymond'' (Adrian Russell Wills), a happy family is broken apart when the mother, Lorraine (Mailman), is caught for social-security fraud, dobbed in, her husband Raymond suspects, by another Redfern local. Yet the drama is not in the fraud, per se: it's in the difference between Lorraine's and Raymond's reactions to it.

''Lorraine just puts her head down and decides to pay it back,'' Mailman says. ''But Raymond becomes obsessed with finding who dobbed her in, and it's this that eventually brings him undone … there's a few home truths that come out. There's no glossing over the issues in the indigenous community.''

The series is brave, she says, not only for being set in Redfern but ''for consistently putting an indigenous family front and centre. I mean, in terms of the urban black experience, Redfern has a particular resonance. Hopefully this series will have a similar impact.''

Redfern Now

ABC1, Thursday, 8.30pm.

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