ABC’s World of Discovery” weighs in with an engaging hourlong documentary that puts a human face on the Australian Outback. Husband-and-wife team of producer-writer Hugh Piper and cinematographer Helen Barrow spent a year at Bradshaw, a remote cattle station in northern Australia owned by Ian McBean and family.
Project conveys a vivid sense of the area’s frontier people and, to a lesser extent, the history of Outback settlements and the land itself.
Much of the focus is on how the McBean children, Sam (12) and Fiona (11), cope with the severe isolation. As Fiona says, helping work the nearly 4,000 -square-mile station (one of the largest in Australia) is “different than watching television all day.” The mail plane that arrives weekly is often the only contact with the outside world for weeks at a time, and school is conducted over the radio. Ian confesses he’s married to the land and his station. Mum carries a heavy load running the business side of things.
Of course they aren’t native to the land, and the program doesn’t skirt the conquest of the aborigines, nor does it dwell on it. A well-edited sequence tells how the natives suffered a 95% loss of life over 50 years through war and disease. Many survivors went to work on cattle stations like Bradshaw, which was founded by a white, 19th-century colonel.
Other harsh realities are examined during the April mustering of 10,000 head of cattle and a visit to the mobile stock camps in August.
A high point of everyone’s year is the Catherine Show & Rodeo, when all the Outback folk come together. Then Sam goes off to boarding school in Brisbane filled with trepidation and excitement. Intending to study agriculture, he’s philosophical, but everyone wonders whether he’ll come back to work the land, and Ian laments the loss of one of his best workers.
Mel Gibson’s deep-voiced narration is apt. Likewise, country songs (“We’re the boys from the bush and we’re back in town”) add a great deal. Viewers may occasionally have trouble deciphering the thick accents. Barrow’s photography is excellent and varied, and there’s a minimum of talking heads.
Poignant documentary is the perfect length and captures the flavor of these plucky people pursuing a rare way of life.