I’m not sure what SBS was trying to achieve when the powers that be decided to exhume David Oldfield’s long-dead career as a political personality for the second season of First Contact.
Was it just looking for the easiest way to make sparks fly in its socio-politically-aware reality series? Or did it seriously think a useful or informative debate would emerge from his participation?
But it seems clear what Oldfield’s objective was in agreeing to the series: to assert his cultural superiority and denigrate Indigenous cultures.
In the first few minutes of the series, Oldfield states that Aboriginality should have “died out”, and says Indigenous cultures aren’t worth celebrating: “Is there something celebratory? You lived in the Stone Age longer than anybody else?”
After the first season, in late 2014, SBS has revived the First Contact format, introducing non-Indigenous Australians to Indigenous people and communities around the country in an effort to challenge their perceptions.
It’s a tested formula by now, almost exactly the same as one used by SBS in the wildly successful Go Back to Where You Came From – take a small group of fiery and headstrong Australians with firmly held opinions about asylum seekers or Indigenous people, put them into a series of confronting situations, and follow their personal journeys in a format heavily inspired by reality TV.
But this time around, the producers have gone with famous Australians, taking them on a month-long journey around Australia. On the generally pro-Indigenous side is comedian Tom Ballard, singer Natalie Imbruglia, and former Australian Idol judge Ian ‘Dicko’ Dickson. On the more, um, cynical side is actor Nicki Wendt, former Miss Australia Renae Ayris, and ex-One Nation politician David Oldfield.
And they certainly have some strong opinions among them, even though most fall into the 60 per cent of Australians who have had little or no contact with Indigenous people.
Imbruglia has never had any meaningful interaction with Indigenous people but has strong positive feelings about their cultures, and wants to discover more.
Ballard is already known for his progressive politics and is always quick to leap into an argument with Oldfield.
Dicko believes Indigenous culture should be celebrated and brought more to the centre of our cultural identity, but has a fear that he might have racist thoughts lurking underneath the surface.
Wendt is certainly fascinating in her transparency. She acknowledges that she’s had racist thoughts about Indigenous people, but also says that she’s very different to them because she brushes and flosses twice daily, without fail. And her hair is different. And she smells different. (Note to self: next time I see Nicki Wendt at an event, I must get within sniffing distance.)
She’s the soft racist. The one who will be changed.
And although we don’t see much of Ayris in the first episode, she has a similarly odd outlook. She says she’s been spat on and harassed by Indigenous people and believes they have “an attitude” towards her.
It’s up to Oldfield to be the real ogre of the group and, in an appalling interaction with Aboriginal elder Timmy “Djawa” Burarrwanga in East Arnem Land, he proves himself to be rude, dismissive and as stubborn as … a One Nation politician. First off, he refuses to have his skin painted in ochre as part of the welcoming ceremony, then later on he refuses to participate in a group fishing expedition, saying that he considers the whole thing “unnecessary”.
Oldfield says that he’ll happily leave if Burarrwanga doesn’t want him to stay on his land, and then we cut to a break while we wait for Burarrwanga’s response. It’s your classic reality-TV ad break cliffhanger.
Then when the episode wraps up, we’re treated to a preview of what we’ll see on the next episode of First Contact. We know that an Aboriginal woman will tell Oldfield to get out of her house. But what does Oldfield say that will drive her to this point? Well you’ll have to watch it to find out.
The fact that David Oldfield gets more screen time in a show about Indigenous Australians than any Indigenous Australian should immediately sound alarm bells
It’s a format we understand by now: the progressives are exposed to be a little naive, and the more conservative members of the group are exposed as uncaring and often unthinking, but have their eyes opened just a little to the realities of the people they denigrate.
There’s something to be said for the kind of provocative TV which exposes and challenges racist and blinkered thinking, but First Contact seems more concerned with creating dramatic tension and conflict than hearing the stories of the Indigenous people at the centre of whatever this “debate” is meant to be.
Indigenous people are barely invited into the conversation in this series – the vast majority of the show and its conflicts arise from debates among the six white celebrities about Aboriginality and how they think various problems in Indigenous communities would be best solved.
Sure, we get snippets of stories from the Indigenous people with whom the celebrities come into contact, but the narrative is always about how it made those white celebrities feel, and what they think about a situation.
It’s the type of TV in which an Indigenous woman tells how she lost several family members in the space of just a few months, but the focus immediately turns to what a white celebrity learnt from that story.
SBS should be doing better than this. The fact that David Oldfield gets more screen time in a show about Indigenous Australians than any Indigenous Australian should immediately sound alarm bells. (Even the publicity image above, released by SBS, features Oldfield in focus, with Burarrwanga blurry in the foreground.)
It’s compelling, blood-boiling TV, but there’s no escaping the fact that the Indigenous stories here have been used as triggers for yet another narrative of white self-discovery.
The first two episodes of this season of First Contact can be viewed on SBS On Demand. The final episode airs tonight on SBS.
This article was first published on The Daily Review.