The Circuit: articles

A new Broome

A new SBS drama offers a telling view of our remote communities, writes Melinda Houston.

If you had any doubts about the need for Australian television to "tell us our own stories", a new drama on SBS should answer those doubts comprehensively. It's a model of the capacity for television to do good; particularly the capacity for television drama to do good.

Great drama has - as well as the information contained in a documentary - a plot, characters, conflict and some kind of resolution. It's usually prettier and more coherent too. (Yes, great documentaries can have these characteristics, but it's rare.) So drama has an appeal documentaries tend not to.

Drama can also offer insights that documentaries cannot, because drama's not obliged to stick to "the facts". Facts have their limits when it comes to creating genuine understanding. Drama makes it easier for us to walk in the shoes of the various players, and nothing generates real insight and empathy like "becoming" someone else, albeit briefly and vicariously.

So hooray for The Circuit, which - if done well - was always going to be a fantastic contribution to the national dialogue on indigenous Australia. And given the current state of affairs, could not have come at a better time.

The Circuit is the Circuit Court, where a magistrate and Legal Aid and Aboriginal Legal Service lawyers travel the Kimberley dispensing justice.

Aaron Pedersen plays Drew Ellis, a white-raised middle-class blackfella who puts his hand up to work as the ALS solicitor for three months. Despite the colour of his skin, he's as ignorant of indigenous Australia as the rest of us. His education is our education.

Hooray too for the fact that it is done well. Care is taken with every aspect. There's lovely music from David Bridie as well as Kimberley musicians the Pigram Brothers and Patrick Davies. Someone's actually thought about the cinematography. So yes, there are sweeping red-dirt landscapes but the camera is also used to create a sense of space or of claustrophobia, of tension, confusion, moments of clarity and humour.

It's not flawless. Artistic licence is taken, sometimes unnecessarily. (They seem to have no problem showing mobs sitting around boozing, but the camp dogs are immaculately clean and tick-free.) The script occasionally clunks, especially in the first ep, which suffers the usual first-ep curse of too much exposition.

And the employment of lots of locals in the cast means performances are uneven. But most of the core cast do a terrific job, particularly Pedersen, Kelton Pell as his offsider Sam Wallan, and journo Archie (Nick Simpson-Deeks). And some of the ring-ins are surprisingly good. The kids especially (who seem a little more relaxed in front of the camera) are a joy.

It ain't exactly a comedy but a rich vein of humour runs through it. ("That yours? No wonder they arrested you!" Sam laughs when Drew is nicked trying to liberate his Beemer from the wreckers.) And it does, gradually, reveal to us why all the stayers - the magistrate, the Legal Aid solicitor, the journo - bitch and moan relentlessly, yet bear a deep and abiding love for the country, and its people.

Most importantly, it's thoughtfully written. It's very real in the way it shows us how the defence and the prosecution, the police and the judge, are all part of the same club and all often working more or less towards the same outcome. Even when they're not, they are inevitably not just working but living, eating and drinking side by side. It generates a very particular dynamic that's captured perfectly here.

Also believably realised are Drew's naive wish to "make a difference" in the few months he plans to be in town, and his rapid realisation of the near impossibility of doing just that. He, and we, discover the different ways you measure a win, the different way you measure justice, in a place where most of the population will be dragged into the legal system one way or the other, sooner or later.

It's also remarkably clear eyed in its depiction of the indigenous population, and its bewildering variety. From Drew, fulfilling the definition of "coconut"; to his court officer and the clerk of courts, local but educated; the politically savvy but very traditional community elders to whom the whole white world is remote and foreign; and everything in between.

It's unsentimental. We see the infighting within Aboriginal communities, the power plays, the unhealthy and manipulative aspect of intense extended family as well as its function as crucial, often life-saving support.

The court scenes are particularly good in illuminating the complex kind of law-and-order issues that plague remote Aboriginal communities. They don't shy away from the headline-making stuff - domestic violence, child abuse - but it's given its proper place in the scheme of things. Those issues are not, in fact, the reason most Aboriginal people end up in trouble with the law. And they are not the most pervasive problems facing most Aboriginal communities.

What The Circuit does so well - what drama does so well and that something like, say, Lateline simply can't - is canvass the metaphysical ills that blight contemporary Aboriginal communities. Who am I? What's my place in the world? And it explores the clash of cultures within communities as much as with the outside world.

If there's one major problem with The Circuit, it's this: it's on SBS, the broadcaster with the most slender audience in the country. (And an audience temperamentally more inclined to documentaries.) Let's hope the multicultural broadcaster's existing audience embrace this program. And that 10 times that number switch channels, and give it a try, for both the pleasure of it, and the education it offers.

By Melinda Houston
July 08, 2007
The Age