Remote Area Nurse: articles

Susie Porter

Susie Porter

Distant lives

It could almost be a scene from outer space: dozens of domed silver tents clustered in a sandy clearing glow in the midday sun, barely interrupted by a smattering of swaying palms. In the near distance, through a fringe of tropical vegetation, azure waters wash over a stretch of pumice-studded sand. Only the laughter of islander children, playing further up the beach, breaks the silence.

Welcome to Masig, home to 200 or so Torres Strait islanders and, for four months last year, the 70-strong cast and crew of RAN: Remote Area Nurse, a six-hour SBS dramatic miniseries about the life of an island nurse.

The first television drama ever made in the Torres Strait, RAN was shot entirely on location on the tiny coral cay, best known by its European name Yorke Island, which measures less than three kilometres long and 800 metres across at its widest point.

It's a big deal for a region that relies heavily on government aid. As well as location licence fees, the producers have rented houses to use as office space and to accommodate the cast, and have hired vehicles and employed locals to make traditional costumes, mats and decorations for feast scenes. Many of the 30 cast are islanders, most acting for the first time, and Masig locals also are employed on the crew.

"All the Torres Strait knows!" says Masig liaison officer Rocky Gela, his voice heavy with pride. "It's very, very exciting for all of us. It's the very first time having a film crew to be based on the island."

Cradling cups of cordial and soft drink, tanned and casually clad crew seem oblivious to their idyllic surrounds, devouring newspapers and glossy magazines recently arrived from the mainland.

Two days ago a federal election swept John Howard back to government; for most, this is the first opportunity to read about it. A sign is posted asking that the newspapers remain in the communal area for all to enjoy but within hours even the advertising inserts are gone. Without email, internet or mobile phone services, word from home - however bland - is gold.

A three-hour flight by light aircraft from Cairns, Masig is closer to Papua New Guinea than mainland Australia. As one crew member put it, if the mainland sank into the Pacific, few Torres Strait islanders would notice. Or care.

Despite - or perhaps because of - its location in paradise, it's been a tough shoot. Crew members work 11-hour days, six days a week, enduring constant heat and isolation. While the actors share rented houses, the crew, including directors Catriona McKenzie and David Caesar and producer Penny Chapman, live in the little silver tents. Shells, coconuts, woven mats and brightly coloured lava lavas individualise those belonging to the more creative. (McKenzie and Chapman were runners up in a competition rewarding the most splendidly decorated tent.)

A nearby group of trestle tables and fold-up plastic chairs forms the dining and living area while the "smokers' lounge", a short distance away, is sheltered by a tarp suspended on aluminium legs. Fresh food, brought in weekly by barge, is stored in large refrigerated containers.

On the edge of the tent village, communal bathroom facilities include an unsightly row of Portaloos and cold-water showers suspended outdoors behind screens built of palm fronds. "Cold", however, is a relative term. The weather is stifling and about to get worse and the water is tepid at best. Island elders warn that the doldrums are on the way - the very hot, still season before the "big wet" in December.

The miniseries, inspired by the experience of Chapman's sister, Peta, a nurse based on Masig for three years in the mid 1990s, was written by John Alsop, Sue Smith and Alice Addison. Each spent time in the Strait while developing their scripts. The current nurse, Robyn White, is the sole medical practitioner serving 700 people on two islands and is consulting on the scripts. White has lived and worked on Masig for 12 years and recalls not-so-distant days when the poorly resourced health centre relied on a wheelbarrow as its only patient transport. It's only marginally better now; patients these days are transported on a temperamental six-wheeler known as a "gator" or, in emergencies, are flown three-hours to Cairns.

"Remote area nurses are amazing people," Chapman says, pausing to chat under a coconut palm after inspecting the interior of a house, newly dressed by the art department.

"They are out there on the edge looking after communities, working with communities, without regular hospital or doctor support and they are doctor, nurse, pharmacist, psychologist, social worker, vet in some instances. They have an extraordinary amount of responsibility."

RAN tells the story of Helen Tremain, a white nurse in her 30s who returns to the island where she has lived for five years, following the death of her mother on the mainland.

"This white woman has lost all of her family," says Chapman, a former head of ABC Television whose credits include Brides of Christ, The Road to Coorain and last year's Ten Network drama, The Cooks. "She comes back at the beginning of the drama and her mother has died and she's the last of the family. What she finds very compelling about this place is the power of family and she's bewitched by it."

While Tremain, played by Susie Porter, is the focus, the story is essentially about family and belonging.

"It is a story of a woman's life in a community that she doesn't belong to and her relationships with the prominent family of that place. It's a story about belonging or not. It's as much about these people as it is about her. It's about a medico but it's not a medical drama, it's really a family saga."

The nurses themselves face enormous hardship, with limited resources and "an extraordinary lack of support from some of the government departments for whom they work", Chapman says.

"They are extraordinarily resilient, feisty, bloody minded, stubborn people," with fascinating tales to tell of their experiences. "Some of them are either running away from something or running to something. Some of them just like the life. For some of them at a particular stage of their life it's a really good thing to do."

For the crew, as well as the nurses, there have been hurdles - not least the distance and remoteness of the location. There also is a need to "absolutely respect" the culture and strict Christian beliefs of the people.

"There's nothing like, after an 11-hour day, having a cold beer, especially in a climate like this," she says, but Masig is a dry island so the crew obeys a strict no-alcohol policy. Female crew are forbidden from flirting with island men.

Every day has been a learning experience, says Chapman, who lives in "constant low-level anxiety we'd do something awful and be asked to leave the island".

"We've had to hand pick our crew to make sure that these are the kinds of people who are not only great technicians and great craftsmen, but also people who can handle living in tents, having cold bush showers, living a life away from their families and without beer.

"And also, what makes life up here so incredibly enjoyable is that it runs on island time, which means it's much, much slower."

While occasionally frustrating, the pace has its advantages. For star Susie Porter, the four months playing Tremain came as a peaceful change from life as a struggling actor in London, selling newspapers and doing odd jobs to make ends meet.

"I kind of like the sense of being isolated up here, it's quite nice," she says. And while working in the heat takes its toll: "Where on earth would you have the opportunity to come to a place like this? It's not like a tourist destination."

Attracted to her "very three-dimensional" character after reading a single episode, Porter accepted the role at a time when unemployment loomed. "I was very poor. I'd just finished a play and I was looking down the barrel of having to go and sell Evening Standards again. Also, I hadn't been home for two years, I hadn't seen my family. It just seemed to come at the right time."

For Billy Mitchell, who plays Robbo, the white guy who runs the fuel-supply barge and a love interest to Tremain, it was also a welcome change. Before his casting, Mitchell, a NIDA graduate, was labouring with a couple of carpenters and working as a computer technician - skills that have proven useful on Masig.

"On average four days a week I'll do something, whether it be a 10-minute fix or a couple of hours. Some days I'm in there for seven or eight hours," he says, laughing. "One of the days this week I'll be working with Robyn, the nurse; she's having a few problems with her (Apple) Mac!"

Mitchell, barefoot, deeply tanned and with untamed sun-bleached curls, has thrown himself into island life. Inviting the guest on a walking tour of the island, he happily explains the relationships between the islanders, trawler crews and other white residents based in the Strait.

"This barge that's out here at the moment," he says, pointing out to sea, "he's a diesel mechanic. The fishermen don't really use him, even though he's got a freezer, because they've got a moving barge. For the sake of the story, Robbo's barge stays there as a fuelling station. Robbo's not a qualified mechanic. I think the chap that's out there now, it's just been a bonus that he's a diesel mechanic for the local guys. But he's an enigmatic fellow!"

For other cast, such as Luke Carroll, the isolation and lack of communication, has proven tough. "This is my sixth week and I'm starting to get a bit homesick. I've got a baby boy at home and I'm missing him," he says.

But the isolation does help in creating realism in performance - the characters feel similar isolation - and allows unbroken concentration on the job at hand. Carroll has spent his days off learning Creole, the English-based dialect spoken across the Torres Strait.

Carroll has been helped by his islander co-stars including Charles Passi, who plays his on-screen father, the charismatic island chairman Russ Gaibui. "Charles has taken on the leader role," he says. "He's the father figure. He's in character 24/7!"

Securing Passi in the lead male role was key to ensuring the viability of the series, says Chapman, who, with casting agent Greg Apps, spent months putting together the cast. Apps travelled around the islands, as well as Townsville, Brisbane and Cairns, engaging liaison people in each community.

One of the last cast was Aaron Fa'Aoso, who plays Russ Gaibui's eldest son, Eddie. Like Passi, a singer-songwriter, Fa'Aoso, whose "mob" hails from Saibai island, has a strong background in performance.

"We're a very oral culture, we have oral traditions, and through song and dance our various myths and legends are passed on," Fa'Aoso says. "I'm very comfortable with performance. Most of the cast would be the same."

A former professional rugby league player turned Queensland government health worker, Fa'Aoso feels pride and a deep sense of responsibility to accurately portray his culture and the politics that surround it.

"(This miniseries is) addressing issues that my people are facing and that indigenous people throughout the country are facing," he says.

"This production addresses alcohol abuse, domestic violence issues, political issues, native title issues and also family issues; dysfunctional family issues, what goes on in families. Christian issues. All the issues that we are facing as Torres Strait islanders and as indigenous people, and that's what flashed up at me straight out of the script. The patriarchal society that we have here in the Torres Strait; the man leads and the woman follows.

"It's a huge privilege to show that. To put that on the television screen.

"It's just mind-blowing, mate!"

RAN: Remote Area Nurse premieres on Thursday at 8.30pm on SBS.

By Kylie Miller
December 29, 2005
The Age