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Berlin: New Wave of Australian Series Brings Indigenous Stories Into Focus

A new wave of Australian drama series has shined a light on Indigenous cultures, with Aboriginal-led productions reshaping the domestic market while finding a global platform for Indigenous stories.

What that might mean for Indigenous Australians was the focus of “Mainstream, Genre and Indigenous Perspectives: New Wave Australian Series,” a panel that took place Tuesday during the Berlinale Series Market, moderated by Jenny Cooney, executive vice president of Bunya Productions.

The panel featured Wayne Blair, director of “Mystery Road 2,” which premiered this week in Berlin; Darren Dale, co-creator and producer of “Total Control”; and Tony Briggs, actor (“Cleverman”) and creator and producer of “The Warriors.”

“Total Control” is a six-part drama series about a female senator, played by Aboriginal actress Deborah Mailman, caught up in the rough-and-tumble world of Australian politics. Blair held the series up as an example of the new possibilities for Indigenous creators. “Even to see an Aboriginal actress to play a senator in Australian parliament was unthinkable 10, 15 years ago,” he said. “We do it now, and we accept it so easily.”

Credit goes to the Australian Film Commission and Screen Australia, the government funding body that has a dedicated Indigenous Department, for laying the groundwork. “They’ve been fearless and brave in backing us consistently to tell those stories,” said Dale. “What we’ve been on collectively as makers and creators of work is a 25-year journey of bringing indigenous stories [and] having a place at the table of the cultural landscape in Australia.”

Another key has been a determined spirit of collaboration between both Indigenous and non-Indigenous players. “Being able to come together in a collaborative way is what allows us to do the things we’re doing in the way we’re doing it, to be able to get our stories out,” said Briggs. “To be fearless and brave and bold and have aspirations together, that’s certainly something that’s given us strength.”

That’s given creators the opportunity to venture off in bold directions, such as the “Outback Noir” of “Mystery Road” or the futuristic drama of “Cleverman,” a sci-fi series with roots in Aboriginal mythology. Such local spins on familiar genres have offered viewers a gateway into Indigenous stories. “It allows people to come into a world that otherwise they wouldn’t be too certain they could be a part of,” said Briggs.

Audiences have responded, turning series like “Cleverman” and “Total Control” into appointment viewing, while breaking the box office with films like “The Sapphires,” the 1960s-set musical drama directed by Blair about an Aboriginal women’s quartet that was Australia’s answer to the Supremes. The film received a 10-minute standing ovation in Cannes.

Such films have underscored the industry’s success at “taking Australian stories but making them for worldwide audiences,” said Dale. “We’ve all wanted to make stories that connect to the widest possible audience. We didn’t want to make work that sat aside or ghettoized as indigenous stories. What we wanted to do was have our seat at the table and be part of the fabric of the country.”

For a community that has long been marginalized within Australia, that’s helped rewrite the script. “We wanted to really humanize our stories. We wanted to create strong characters that are compelling to watch on screen,” said Blair. “We wanted to say we have the same hopes, dreams and fears as other people.”

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