The Circuit: articles

Tough law in the outback


It is hard to imagine a better timed, or more important Australian drama than The Circuit. The six-part SBS series is infused with the Jurassic beauty of the Kimberley, all rusted earth flattened under blue sky.

It has wrenching performances by Aaron Pedersen, Gary Sweet and Perth’s Kelton Pell. But what makes it a “must see” is the way it tackles the collision of “white law” and Aboriginal Australia.

The result of nearly three years work by five indigenous writers from around the country, The Circuit is a far cry from the well-meaning exercise in eggshell politics that it might otherwise have been. This is a series that sees a minefield and marches straight in. The explosions that follow are powerful, harrowing and sometimes just plain funny.

“A few times we started to wuss out on some of the bigger darker issues, but the writers wouldn’t let us,” says Perth-based producer Ross Hutchens.

“Things like sexual abuse by elders is a significant sub-plot in the story and we were thinking oh is this going too far and the writers said: ‘No way, there is no way we are going to be involved if you don’t take this head-on.’ And now when you are reading the press and the whole story has broken, you realise why this had to be in it.”

The series follows Aboriginal lawyer Drew Ellis, played by Pedersen, as he joins the Kimberley Circuit Court as a defence lawyer. On the court’s five-day, 2000km circuit of outlying Aboriginal communities, Ellis is introduced to the complexities of delivering “justice” to the remote communities. For Ellis, who is used to the niceties of city law, it is a crude awakening.

“What I like about this, is that we haven’t done indigenous issues on TV, so for a lot of the audience this will be all brand-new to them,” Pedersen said. “We hear about the history of the shearing era, the droughts and the people who live on the land and the farmers and city dwellers, but we always seem to push the indigenous issues to the side. It doesn’t even need to be an issue, just about our lives.

“In (The Circuit) you get to see black politics, how black people treat black people. You will get to see how a city Aboriginal person is treated by a country Aboriginal person and vice versa and you will get to see the connections.”

Raised in the city, Ellis has never met his Aboriginal family, let alone connected with his cultural roots. A fact that Aboriginal Legal Service liaison officer Sam Wallace, played superbly by Pell, never lets him forget.

Wallace, a former police aide and father to a rampantly selfdestructive teenage son, describes Ellis as a coconut — brown on the outside, white on the inside.

The tense relationship between the two men is a strong theme in the series which examines the clash of black and white Australia as beyond the big picture of history and politics.

It is a conflict between individuals and even, in the case of Ellis, within the one person. “Because for me being indigenous is something that I wear very close to my heart and I am very proud of it and to actually stand away from it and act as if I’m not aware of it, or unsure of it, is a bit weird,” Pedersen said.

“But there are a lot of people like Drew who aren’t connected. And their story is easy to overlook, but just as important as anyone else’s.”

For veteran TV actor Gary Sweet, playing circuit court magistrate Peter Lockhart was a seminal experience. A small ‘l’ liberal, Lockhart is a man trying to do the right thing by the communities he serves and the system he represents. He fails at almost every turn.

“I had no idea how ignorant I was of these issues before I began this project,” Sweet said. “It was out of laziness more than anything. But my eyes have really opened and for that reason I would say that this has been the most significant work of my career.”

A series that works on every level, The Circuit is worth waiting up for.

By Griffin Longley
July 04, 2007