Scratch the surface of Redfern Now and you will find burning emotions, deep divisions and enduring spirit.
But the exterior is full of anger, poverty, injustice, violence and intolerance.
Trying to rise above it on a daily basis are an array of characters in ABC1’s new anthology series, the first drama series of its kind to be written, performed, directed and produced by Indigenous Australians.
Serving as Story Producer is UK screenwriter Jimmy McGovern, best known for his works The Street, Cracker, Brookside and The Lakes. McGovern has served as mentor to the writers behind this project (there were over 250 jobs created), and like The Street, it is full of rough diamonds in a struggling corner of the city.
Unlike The Slap, which looked at one incident from alternative perspectives, Redfern Now features a separate story and characters each week. These are six households in which lives are changed by seemingly insignificant moments. The six episodes are crafted by five writers and four directors.
The series doesn’t shy away from the frequently-bleak life of the inner Sydney suburb.
The first episode “Family” by writer Danielle Maclean dives into a domestic situation of a mother off her medication and unable to care for her children. Her sister Grace (Leah Purcell) pleads, then fights, with her to take her pills. In a hovel of a living room, with two distressed young children nearby, the two women struggle. It’s the kind of scene that might have many reaching for their remote control so early in the life of a new series, but Redfern Now isn’t for those seeking saccharine storytelling, and there will be cause for hope before the story’s end.
Purcell (pictured) is defiant as a sister believing in unconditional love, and trying to find refuge for the two children with just hours to spare before a family holiday to Bali. She anchors this episode and sets the tone for Redfern Now as a series: that strength of character can rise above circumstance.
In the second episode “Joyride” by Michelle Blanchard, grandmother Coral (Tessa Rose) is knocked over by a stolen car in which Danny (Rhimi Jonhson Page) was a passenger. While she recovers in hospital, Danny befriends Coral’s granddaughter Julie (Shari Sebbens). This episode focusses on forgiveness, romance and generations. Tessa Rose is outstanding as the obstinate Coral, throwing insults to aimless blackfellas that most of us could never get away with.
The third episode “Raymond” by Adrian Russell Wills sees an Indigenous community leader Raymond (Kelton Pell) due to receive an achievement award at the same time as his partner Lorraine (Deborah Mailman) is facing benefit fraud. Unafraid of illustrating imperfect lives, this story tackles guilt, reputations and hypocrisy.
Three more episodes “Stand Up” by Steven McGregor, “Sweet Spot” by Jon Bell and “Pretty Boy Blue” also by Steven McGregor, will follow. I’m confident that each will be another surprise package.
Redfern and Indigenous themes serve as a backdrop to all six contemporary stories. The Aboriginal flag stands strong as a mural on the wall below Sydney’s skyline. Graffiti colours its buildings, teenagers loiter on the streets, fires burn in tin drums, furniture sits on the footpath, windows and doors are secured with bars and alcohol is consumed on street corners. Around this melting pot island there are austere high-rise apartments, devoid of the character that lurks below.
As television, Redfern Now is a bold experiment that will hopefully yield new screen artists for years to come. It is uncompromising yet uplifting, despite its obvious scars. The performances shine through any sense of despair and ultimately, that’s what makes this so rewarding.
What is really surprising however, is that it’s taken this long for someone to pull this concept together. Blackfella Films, which previously produced Mabo for ABC1 earlier this year, is a force to be reckoned with and Redfern Now is deserving of your attention.
Redfern Now begins 8:30pm Thursday on ABC1.