Black drama strides into the mainstream

His feature debut soared past the $15 million mark at the Australian box office, and looks set to wow US audiences upon its North American release in March. Yet Wayne Blair, director of feel-good indigenous hit The Sapphires, will be working hard during the festive break, to ensure the momentum is maintained  into the New Year.

Fresh from his film closing this year's Dubai International Film Festival – the last major film festival of the year – Blair is  back in Australia, in northern NSW, to get started on his next feature, which he will write and direct.

“I've only just started having the confidence to call myself a director,” he confides, of his breakout year, which also includes directing and acting turns in two of the ABC's indigenous prime-time dramas. “In the last month, working on Redfern Now and Gods of Wheatstreet, I just feel it's the tip of the iceberg.”

Blair, who famously courted the attention of movie mogul of Harvey Weinstein after The Sapphires received a 10-minute standing ovation at its world premiere at Cannes in May, believes we are at a turning point for indigenous storytellers and filmmakers. It follows a meticulous 20-year campaign by government and local funding bodies to champion indigenous talent. Outgoing ABC TV chief Kim Dalton  earmarked $5 million for the network to develop prime-time indigenous stories. A second series of Redfern Now is due for 2013.

The Screen Australia chief executive, Ruth Harley, who has also championed the series, as well as many other indigenous projects, says what happens next is crucial.

“The question now is: when are we going to see this in commercial networks?” Harley says. “Drama is very white. And I don't just mean indigenous Australians, either. The ABC's Kristy Best, for instance, is an actress. She looks Indian, because she has Indian heritage, but she's Australian, and she's only allowed to play Indians. Multi-ethnic is not the norm with commercial networks. That needs to change.”

Screen Australia has a diverse slate for the next 12 months, which includes new features from indigenous filmmakers Ivan Sen (Mystery Road) and Warwick Thornton (The Dark Side). Indigenous talent, Harley says, has never been better placed to succeed.

“All the work is so strongly authored,” she says, “and it's just a different sensibility. There's something very rich about that different sensibility. It's a big coming of age for indigenous content, after building the talent base person by person, in a customised fashion. You've got this wonderful flowering of talent, as a result, so why not embrace it?”

Indeed, Shari Sebbens, one of the stars of The Sapphires, believes a healthy dialogue is now in play within the mainstream arena, and for the nation as a whole. She, too, remains cautiously optimistic about the year ahead, having criss-crossed the globe promoting Blair's film.

“White Australia – and indigenous Australia – seem to have an idea of what an Aboriginal person should look like,” she told Fairfax Media, at the film's red-carpet gala in Dubai over the weekend. “I don't fit that stereotypical mould. So as a result, I don't see people like me being portrayed on screen. We don't see a lot of Aboriginal people, full stop, being portrayed on screen… [The Sapphires] was about bringing that conversation to the table, in a very entertaining and non-threatening way. Suddenly people are aware… Without feeling like they've been hit over the head with a history book.”

Gods of Wheatstreet and Redfern Now series two will screen on ABC TV in the New Year. The Sapphires is out now on DVD/Blu-Ray.

Twitter @EdGibbs

This story Black drama strides into the mainstream first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.