The Circuit: articles

Drawing lines in the sand


The cast at Broome courthouse, from left: LeRoy Parsons, Nick Simpson-Deeks, Marta Kaczmarek, Gary Sweet, Tammy Clarkson, Kelton Pell, Bill McCluskey and Aaron Pedersen.

The Circuit captures the drama of a courtroom with a difference, writes Bridget McManus.

A STRANGLED scream pierces the humid afternoon air in the sleepy outskirts of Broome. "You're a f---in' slut!" A boy on the brink of manhood, his hair spiked into a short, angry mohawk, eyes blazing with chemical-charged fury, lunges at his mother. "F--- you!" he spits through his tears, then in one flailing movement, brings a bookcase crashing to the floor. In the split second of shocked silence that follows, his father locks him in a bear hug and holds the thrashing, howling mess that is his son.

"And cut! Everyone OK?" Richard J. Frankland, writer, musician, filmmaker, Gunditjmara man, and director of this particularly harrowing episode of The Circuit (an SBS miniseries that centres on a travelling magistrate's court in the Kimberley), is pleased with the day's work, which has tested the emotional strength of everyone on set. Mark Coles-Smith, the young actor playing Billy, the wayward son of court liaison officer Sam Wallan (Kelton Pell) and his ex-wife Louise (Ningali Lawford-Wolf), is visibly shaken after the scene and needs time out before the next take.

With a cast, crew and writing and production team comprising about 95 per cent Aboriginal people, the stories of The Circuit are bound to resonate with many of them. The non-Aboriginal actors and producers say that working on this Aboriginal-driven drama, a first for Australian television, has opened their eyes.

Co-producer Ross Hutchens, whose wife is Aboriginal, says: "Just seeing this baggage that indigenous people carry for their whole community . . . There's the amount of death that the indigenous cast and crew have dealt with . . . there's been an actor friend in Melbourne who passed away; it's just constant. I'll be dealing with some on-set issue and the director's helping me and at the same time they're texting a kid in Melbourne who's chroming. You've got all these people with different backgrounds, you're part-producer, you're part-social worker. At the end of it, I can go home, whereas for some of my indigenous directors and writers, this is their life."

As ugly as Billy's explosive scene is, it is one of the series' rare graphic portrayals of the violence, alcohol and drug abuse and destitution that plague some Aboriginal communities. Mostly, such stories are told through the colourful and often amusing courtroom drama that is played out against the stark backdrop of the Kimberley - in makeshift halls, churches and school rooms - as a mismatched two-man team do their best to impose some kind of justice in a land caught between two worlds.

Although magistrate Peter Lockhart (Gary Sweet) and Aboriginal Legal Services lawyer Drew Ellis (Aaron Pedersen) essentially represent those two worlds, the complexity of their characters removes any chance of cliche.

Drew, a "flash city lawyer" from Perth who never knew his Aboriginal father, is more connected to the white way of life than that of the people he hopes to help. His earnest Western demeanour prompts the locals to call him a "coconut" - brown on the outside, white on the inside.

And Peter is acutely aware of having to lord white man's law over black lore, forever pushing the limits of the legal system in a despairingly fruitless effort to accommodate both.

Sweet modelled his character on the local magistrate in Broome, a man he calls "inspiring".

"I found the local magistrate to be a very decent man and someone who has a great degree of humanity," Sweet says. "You could see the enormous responsibility he felt he had, especially in the children's court, where there are a lot of kids trapped in the cycle. It's a heavily scrutinised role and I've read some stuff in the press suggesting that he's too lenient but I think that's a load of rubbish."

It was the real-life magistrate's decision to "bribe" a young boy with the promise of a bicycle if he stayed out of trouble that initiated a storyline that illustrates how the most well-meaning of gestures can backfire. In another poignant scene, Wallan shows Ellis a cemetery where people who lost their jobs after the introduction of equal wages are buried. "All that do-gooding stuff, it'll come back and kick you in the teeth," the liaison officer tells the lawyer.

For Aaron Pedersen there are parallels between his life and his role. Ellis is caught between pining for his non-Aboriginal wife Dianne (Kristy Hillhouse), back in Perth, and answering a deeper call to discover his roots. Pedersen has also found himself caught between two worlds.

Growing up in Alice Springs, he knew that he would have his work cut out for him as an Aboriginal actor in a predominantly white industry. After studying journalism, he returned to his first love and carved a successful career in television, landing roles on The Secret Life of Us and a string of crime dramas including Wildside, Water Rats and MDA. In Broome he is recognised by the indigenous locals. Of that he is immensely proud.

"People come up to me and go, 'Hey, brother! Hey, Wildside!' It just blows me away," Pedersen says. "My main audience is Aboriginal people. If they think I've not done them justice, well, then I'm in trouble. That's why I'm very careful about what I do. That's why I'm very political about what I do. There's a different reason behind what I do as an actor compared to most other actors."

Pedersen says playing the lead in an Aboriginal-driven drama fulfils a long-held dream.

"This is Aboriginal storyline, this is us mob. I couldn't be prouder about that. That's why I embarked on this journey, to change the face and the dynamics of this country. We've got great stories to tell and we're here to entice audiences into our lives as Aboriginal people and say, 'Look, this is what we do, is our life any different to yours? No, it's not, is it? Well then, don't treat us any differently'."

The courtroom action, based on real cases that were the subject of a 1998 documentary called Here Comes The Judge, swings from the painful to the hilarious.

Aboriginal stories are the focus but they are by no means the only ones before the magistrate. There is the redneck from Melbourne whose attempts to stir up racial hatred are thwarted by a quick-witted Ellis and the hard hand of the law.

There's the enterprising elder who is caught out taking tourists to the "sacred sites" of the fictional "Wunbala" (slang for "One Fella") tribe. An Aboriginal woman who bashed her drunken layabout husband over the head with a frozen catfish is let off because the victim ate the weapon. A white wife-beater gets a final warning, and a shifty councillor tests his relationship with the law when he appears on drink-driving charges.

"Humour is such a big part of the Aboriginal culture and I think the writers have managed to integrate that very much into the narrative," says veteran actor Bill McCluskey, who plays Sergeant Bob "Shirley" Temple, a hardened Broome copper who is not easily moved by the defendants' plights.

"A lot of the cases are very funny. But in Aboriginal lore, what you do, you get straight back. It's not like we interpret the law. For them the consequences are very clear, whereas in our law you can negotiate and manipulate and slip out of almost any kind of consequence, if you've got enough money."

As entertaining as the shambolic court proceedings are, it is the individual stories of the main players that are most compelling. Each episode ends with an emotional cliffhanger as the journeys of Ellis, Lockhart, white journalist Archie (Nick Simpson-Deeks) and his Aboriginal stockman boyfriend Clarry (LeRoy Parsons), Aboriginal single mum and court clerk Bella (Tammy Clarkson), Polish legal aid lawyer Ellie (Marta Kaczmarek), and many others unfold and intertwine.

"Our characters are heroes in the sense that they are trying to make an imperfect system work, and it's the humanity of the characters, whether they be black, white or whatever, that makes great stuff for drama," says Hutchens.

Broome, with its unusual, dramatic landscape and languid atmosphere that masks a simmering beneath the surface, is perhaps the star. Perth sea-changers may have left their mark on the dusty red town, with cafes and pearl boutiques lining its wide main street and housing estates cropping up on its fringes, but somehow the place still operates on "Broome time".

The Aboriginal townsfolk (who make up about 15 per cent of the region's population, compared to about 3 per cent in cities) are as prevalent as the non-Aboriginal locals and perpetual strolling parade of Japanese tourists and Australian grey nomads.

"Broome really does take Drew by surprise," says Pedersen. "At first it's a bit of a holiday destination but then it becomes home, because the people become his family. He would like to think that he made the choice to go there but I think a bigger energy took care of that. Just as I, as Aaron, think I chose this job up here. But really I was dragged here by another spirit. There's something special here."

The logistics of filming in the boom town have been challenging, says Hutchens. Negotiating the use of tribal land and timing shoots around the roar of aeroplanes through Broome's busy flight path have tested the patience of cast and crew.

"It was a minor miracle that we actually got accommodation," says Hutchens. "We can't shoot during cyclone season because the insurers won't let us, so it has to be during the dry season, and of course accommodation is at a premium. The whole town is booked out for several weekends. The other issue is the building boom. We had to fly in a carpenter to build sets because we couldn't get a local chippie.

"But we also got a special welcome from the local people because our story is largely an indigenous story and they can see the way we are treating that story with respect."

IF THERE is one theme that runs concurrently through The Circuit and the making of the drama, it is the combination of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal storytellers weaving a story for everyone.

"The indigenous writers have pushed us into areas that I would have been tiptoeing around," Hutchens says.

"Kelly LeFever, the script producer who wrote three episodes, is non-indigenous. We were workshopping ideas and the sexual abuse storyline came up - this was 21/2 years ago, before it broke in the press - and we were saying, 'Maybe we should treat it this way'. And the indigenous writers were saying, 'No bloody way! We're going for this, this has to be told'. I worry now that maybe we didn't go far enough."

On the other hand, Hutchens says there was a push from some indigenous writers to portray non-indigenous characters as villains, an approach he saw as detrimental to the complexity of the story.

"It's Drew's journey," says Hutchens. "But we always thought the magistrate was our way in because he's a small 'l' liberal, who a lot of the SBS audience might be. They think their heart's in the right place; so does he. But sometimes he'll make a decision and you'll go, 'Oh, that's fair', and then there will be a twist and it's like, 'Ah! I hadn't thought of it that way', and we twist it back again."

Ningali Lawford-Wolf, primarily a theatre actor who grew up near Fitzroy Crossing, one of the communities around which the series is based, says that for her The Circuit rings true.

"It's great to see scripts that are quite real, especially for Broome and Aboriginal people. It's nothing like Home and Away, it's something that we can relate to. And not just us, the whole of Australia."

By Bridget McManus
July 05, 2007
The Age