November 20, 2014
Watching First Contact you couldn’t help thinking that this was actually a Black Comedy sketch.
Last night you could watch the second episode of First Contact on SBS One or NITV, the reality documentary series bringing a group of average white Australians into the midst of Aboriginal lives and issues, and then when it finished, flip straight over to Black Comedy on ABC1, the new indigenous sketch comedy program. It felt right, not simply due to the underlying subject matter, but because the programs informed each other.
If First Contact, which concludes tonight, was meant to be the serious show and Black Comedy the funny one, then there were moments when they both pushed so far into their domain that they flipped over and came out holding each other’s techniques. Listening to the cheerfully ignorant cliches some of the First Contact participants spouted – “addicts”, “welfare cheats”, “lazy” or a sarcastically dismissive “I don’t do flagons” in the first five minutes – you couldn’t help thinking that this was actually a Black Comedy sketch.
As Hugo Weaving’s narration pointed out at the beginning of First Contact, six out of 10Australians have had little or no contact with an indigenous Australian, and for many years the number has probably been far worse when it’s come to the subject matter of mainstream television. That’s begun to change, both through the casting of outstanding Aboriginal actors such as Deborah Mailman and Aaron Pedersen in ensemble casts, and the commissioning of acclaimed series such as Redfern Now.
But whether out of stupidity or simple inaction, the broadest of assumptions run deep in this country, and both programs confront them, albeit via different strategies. When a magician hired to perform at a children’s party turns out to be Aboriginal, a white suburban mother on Black Comedy panics and declares she wants nothing to with black magic practised by a witch doctor. “I’ve seen them on the Discovery Channel,” she shrieks.
The initial episodes of Black Comedy have been somewhat scattershot, but it is often funny and capable of sublime moments when a piece runs longer and edges into the surreal. There’s a tone-perfect send-up of hip social protest on next Wednesday’s episode, where a young woman who can’t identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander on a dating website cites land rights and the stolen generations in her Change.org campaign – check the uplifting music playing – and actually succeeds, only to reveal that she got no replies once she ticked the box and stopped doing it. It’s a deft, unexpected punchline.
Some of the sketches are simply pop-cultural appropriation, putting an indigenous spin on mainstream schlock, although the writing is particularly good on the social foibles of sympathetic whites who have no idea how to actually interact with an Aboriginal. One cast member, Nakkiah Lui, is a comic star in the making, while the talented Steven Oliver needs to be careful with how often he falls back on his ludicrously camp gay Aboriginal routine.
If Black Comedy sends up the easily made generalisations, First Contact tried to confront them. Hosted by a reassuring but firm Ray Martin, it took a cross-section of white Australians, some sympathetic and some aggressively disdainful, into Redfern homes, a West Australian prison, a Kimberleys community benefiting from an alcohol ban, and night patrols in the Northern Territory.
It’s difficult to explain systemic issues on an individual level, and the show had to walk a fine line in extracting understanding from those involved, and not just sympathy. The unadorned articulacy of some of the Aboriginals they met was powerful, and it needed to be – the obstinacy of subjects such as supermarket cashier Bo-dene and mother of four Jasmine, who believes an indigenous family with the same circumstances as hers would get four times more welfare support, was at first astounding and then frustrating.
Apart from one or two blow-ups and a participant who walked away mid-episode, there was nothing that suggested reality television, but at times the producers would bring out authority figures, including a senior jail supervisor, to provide sobering facts to the still doubtful. Some will claim that the show pushed one viewpoint, but what came through was that while understanding could grow on an individual level through contact, it didn’t always change broader perceptions of the entire Aboriginal community.
That said, First Contact is a worthy, fascinating viewing experience, and I can’t wait for the Black Comedy sketch about six Indigenous Australians having their cliches of white Australia’s failings challenged.