RAN: inter-cultural exploration

Keith Gallasch on a breakthrough Australian TV series

Myrtle (Louise Taylor, standing) chooses<BR /> a mother for her baby, RAN

Myrtle (Louise Taylor, standing) chooses a mother for her baby, RAN

So often in film and and on television, colonial and post-colonial empathy for Indigenous cultures has been framed in terms of the experience of a white outsider whose subjectivity inevitably tyrannises ours, leaving the majority white audience wondering what those others, Indigenous people, are really like. In Australia, SBS TV has allowed glimpses, although with less and less frequency, of lives in other cultures. ABC TV has restricted us to mostly British fare and less and less of what comprises the Australian present and past. Much of the world speaks English, not just the British, so where are their films and television series? Where is Canada on our screens, New Zealand (beyond a peek), the other USA (bizarrely the ABC has now taken on The West Wing), Ireland or beyond? We occasionally experience on cable another English speaking culture. The Comedy Channel, for instance, started out with some unique and very dark Canadian comedy (featuring faces from the Atom Egoyan ensemble). The Newsroom can still be seen; a more sardonic, less ‘funny’ precursor to Australia’s own Frontline. But the pickings are thin.

In a breakthrough series, RAN (Remote Area Nurse), producer Jan Chapman and SBS have walked the sometimes barbed line between white and Indigenous subjectivities, dextrously deploying collaborators on both sides and in between, and creating a rich 6-part series which I devoured in 2 sittings. RAN is spoken in Australian English and Torres Strait Islander Creole, the subtitles unobtrusively amplifying what we can already half understand. For the engaged viewer, RAN is a cross-cultural adventure, but one which clearly expresses the limits of the journey.

The old dilemma appears to persist. The narrative is framed by Helen (Susie Porter), a white, mainland regional area nurse. It’s her voice-over (if rarely used) and it’s largely her experience of the people and events that we witness, sharing her outsider’s view. However, the condition of being the outsider is driven home with force: as much as Helen would like to be part of the community she has to acknowledge that she is not only just another nurse, but that the locals will eventually take over the services she has managed. She is not indispensable.


Helen Tremain (Susie Porter) with<br /> Russ Gaibui (Charles Passi), RAN

Helen Tremain (Susie Porter) with Russ Gaibui (Charles Passi), RAN

What RAN manages to convey through its large cast is a sense of the complexities of community life on a small Torres Strait island, one in which there is joy and celebration, beauty and serenity (each episode has its quota of lingering views, calms between emotional storms) but also the pain wrought by supersitition, alcoholism, domestic violence (inflicted by both husbands and wives), male loss of traditional status and, at the centre of the series, the limits of the local medical centre. While Helen is central to the narrative, she shares the screen with mostly Indigenous performers whose characters’ lives are carefully delineated. Some are well-known professionals (Margaret Harvey, Luke Carroll), many are first-time actors from the region including Charles Passi as Russ Gaibui, the pragmatic, charismatic chairman of the island community and father of a troubled and contested dynasty. The almost romantic encounter between Helen and Russ provides an overarching if distanced framework for the series’ narrative but is quite secondary to the counterpointing of the nurse’s view of things with the focus in each episode on Russ, his wife and 4 adult children whose dramas unfold and overlap in turn. There are many scenes which Helen does not witness, or only fleetingly and does not understand. Her white friend, and later lover, Robert (a kind of RAN Diver Dan, played by Billy Mitchell), suggests, with his cruel mix of insight and cynicism, that all Helen knows of the community is what she glimpses through windows on her evening walks.

If you only read a precis of the series, you’d suspect RAN was inclined to soap opera as the gossip, misunderstandings, superstition, jealousies and outbreaks of violence, dengue fever and struggles for power rapidly accumulate. But moment by moment, RAN is often reflective, its rhythms carefully paced so that we never forget that we’re in a small community on a remote island. Each episode offers aerial shots of the island, a coral cay, wide shots of the palm-lined streets, views through windows, and closeups in the congested interior of the medical centre. The attractiveness of beach walks and swimming find their opposites in a ‘walk against diabetes’ or the drowning of the policeman’s son as he smuggles alcohol onto the island, or the poaching of local lobster by white fishermen.

The pleasures of the island have their limits, and so do the characters in RAN and those limitations are central to its thematic thrust. Chairman Russ Guibai is a clan leader, but living in a democracy he is subject to an election, and his pragmatism will lose his office to his sons. Solomon (JIm Gela), one of those sons, is a ranger who, although married to a white woman, is otherwise intolerant of whites and limits his wife’s sense of herself. He viciously spears a pirate fisherman. Paul (Luke Carroll), the youngest brother, has been the acting head of the medical centre until Helen’s return. He has barely coped with the job but is ambitious to take it over. Paul is inadequate to the demands of his partner, Bernadette (Merwez Whaleboat) who finds the island culture stifling, the living conditions appalling and has just overcome a bout of alcoholism. The tension between the 2 results in terrible domestic violence. Later, counselled and married, Paul looks set to take over the medical centre, but RAN leaves that tale unfinished. The eldest son, Eddie (Aaron Fa’aoso), gone from the island for a decade, returns to win power through faith (he offers a kind of fundamentalist alternative to the local church run by the policeman) and the vote, appealing to a sense of self-sufficiency and idealism, taking Solomon with him as electoral partner. Unlike Solomon and Paul, Eddie is not inclined to violence. He is a dancer and an eloquent speaker and, unlike his brothers, no longer in awe of his father, no longer destructively bitter, but simply determined to supplant him. Their sister Nancy (Margaret Harvey) has reached her own limits, dropping out of medical training because of the stress, but she has an eye on the outside world and the capacity to confront her father and to challenge Helen. Nonetheless, the father’s quiet strength and his grip on power in the family and the community seems to have yielded a grim heritage compounded by the complexities of postcolonialism. The passing of his power and the departure of the nurse could signal new challenges to the limitations inherited from a colonial and Indigenous past.

RAN is in part based on the experiences of Jan Chapman’s sister as a regional nurse working on Masig (Yorke Island) where the series was filmed. The white writers, John Alsop and Sue Smith, visited Masig and Iama islands to research the series, drawing on local lives. Alice Addison joined the writing team. Torres Strait elder statesman George Mye was cultural consultant, nurse Robyn White consulted on remote area health management, actor Charles Passi gave additional advice on culture and language, and casting director Greg Apps spent 3 months in Queensland and the Torres Strait auditioning by videotaping conversations rather than by screen testing. The series was shot over 4 months on high definition tape and in terms required by the community, including no alcohol. The episode directors were David Caesar and Catriona Mackenzie (a young Indigenous filmmaker with impressive short film credits) who, with the help of a fine script, have secured excellent, intimate performances (with harrowing, explosive moments) from a uniformly strong cast. Ian Jones’ cinematography is immersive and David Bridie’s bringing together of music from the Melanesian region frames the action without resorting to melodramatic underscoring. RAN is a wonderfully sustained series that sets a new benchmark for cross-cultural collaboration and for Australian television series.

RAN (Remote Area Nurse), directors David Caesar, Catriona Mackenzie, producer Jan Chapman, co-producer Helen Panckhurst, writers John Alsop, Sue Smith, Alison Addison; A Chapman Pictures Production. Shown on SBS TV, Jan-Feb

RealTime issue #71 Feb-March 2006 pg. 19

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2006