Remote Area Nurse: articles

Susie Porter

Susie Porter, who plays nurse Helen Tremain.

Healthy change of emphasis

It has long been something of a mystery why Australian drama seems to overlook one very important section of our society - indigenous Australians.

In any average year the number of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander faces that pop up in prime-time series could be counted on one hand… and when they do it’s not usually in starring roles.

But that all changes from this week when SBS premieres RAN: Remote Area Nurse;, set on a Torres Strait island and with a cast largely made up (aside from the eponymous nurse and a few others) of indigenous Australian actors.

This time the white faces are very much in the minority as we follow life on a tropical island far from the bright city lights and the result is a unique moment in television, said Susie Porter who plays nurse Helen Tremain, through whom we see much of the action.

“This really is groundbreaking television. Never before have we had Torres Strait Islander culture shown in a non-documentary form… and the series tackles the issues facing that culture head on,” Porter said.

“We don’t tip-toe around and say ‘Oh just look at the beautiful island’, we show the reality of life in that part of Australia without judging.”

Porter’s nurse has spent five years with the isolated island community as its only medical officer. Working with the local council members and elders, she offers what help she can while trying not to force outside values on to their traditional ones.

She has an uneasy alliance with the island’s chairman and its locals and is constantly reminded that she is very much the outsider.

It’s a fine line she walks, Porter said, and one that accurately mirrors the plight of those doctors and nurses living in similar situations around the country.

“What interested me most about my character is that she is so full of contradictions as we all are as human beings,” Porter said.

“I mean how can she say: ‘Oh they shouldn’t be drinking on the island’ [RAN; is set on a “dry island” where alcohol is banned] but can go and get pissed herself?

“Then there’s the fact she flirts with the chairman [played by Torres Strait Islander Charles Passi] while working with his wife and family.

“It was a real challenge playing that role and a real eye-opener for me too.”

The challenge was made easier by the cast of locals, Porter said. Although many had no formal training as actors, all easily adapted to the difficulties of television production and were eager to help show their culture to the rest of the world. “Once the series was complete, Aaron Fa’aoso [who plays Eddie Gaibui, an islander who comes home after years away] took it back up to where we had filmed and showed the locals,” Porter said. “They stayed up all night watching every episode one after another and they just loved it.

“There are some tough issues dealt with here, but we pretty much tell both sides of the stories through the characters and leave it up to the viewers to make up their mind and I think everyone really appreciated that.”

The end result, Porter said, is an entertaining piece of television filled with complex characters and a series that will almost subconsciously help educate Australians about life outside the cities where most live.

“Many people don’t even realise Torres Strait Islanders are a part of our population,” she said.

“And this will really help put their culture on the map I think. I’m very proud to have been a part of it.”

RAN: Remote Area Nurse;, Thursday, 8.30pm, SBS.

Janaury 02, 20006
Sydney Morning Herald