Living Black thinks outside the idiot box
Sundays, 4.30pm on SBS One
from March 18
“I had a terrible time at school,” Living Black presenter Karla Grant tells Green Left Weekly.
The veteran journalist, who is about to host a new series of the flagship Aboriginal affairs show she launched for SBS a decade ago, has come a long way since being taunted as a “boong” and “coon” in Adelaide playgrounds.
“It was awful,” says Grant, who is now Living Black’s executive producer as well as its host. “They were very ignorant - and I was the only Aboriginal kid at the school.”
Her chief reporter Allan Clarke, sitting next to her in SBS’s subdued Sydney studios, reveals that he shares Grant’s educational experience as well as her lithe looks.
“It was pretty much the same for me,” says the proud Muruwari man from Bourke in New South Wales.
“My dad found work at the meat works in Toowoomba in Queensland, and me and my sister were the only Aboriginal people at the whole school.
“It was horrific — and it wasn‘t just the students, there was one teacher who was really racist and would constantly single me out. My mother came to the school and had it out with her in front of everyone.
“I remember crying at the back of the class, but she taught me to stand up for myself.”
Standing up for himself means Clarke has also come a long way. He went on to study communications at the University of Technology, Sydney, which included a stint in Vancouver, Canada, where he studied First Nations education and linguistics.
“I was really shocked at how advanced the indigenous people there were in terms of having a voice on the national stage, having a treaty and land hand-backs that were not remote so they could now make money off that land,” he says.
“They'd put up a shopping mall and things like that, in a functioning suburb. For Aboriginal Australians it seemed a world away. They were unhappy with where they were at, but we're, like, 50, 60 years behind that."
Clarke started his media career on Fairfax’s Sun-Herald after its senior reporter, Frank Walker, spoke to Clarke’s school principal in Bourke. Clarke was invited, as a 17-year-old student, to write a piece on reconciliation.
At first he enjoyed working there, but as time went by he found he could not stomach working for the mainstream media when it portrayed Aboriginal people in such a negative light.
“I couldn't reconcile those reports with my upbringing or my family or my community, because if I believed them, then everyone I've ever known are criminals and drug addicts.
“I wanted to go out and do some more positive Aboriginal reporting.”
“The only time the mainstream media do focus on Indigenous issues is when it’s a negative story like a riot,” she says.
“They very rarely, if at all, focus on positive stories. But I think people are interested in Indigenous issues and shows like Living Black are vital in getting that information out there.”
And Living Black does it in an innovative way. It pioneered the use of video journalists before SBS’s current affairs show Dateline followed suit.
Living Black has a groundbreaking approach to TV that gets Clarke talking about education again. He took a year out of journalism to study theatre at Redfern’s EORA Indigenous College of Performing Arts, which taught him to think outside the idiot box.
“It just helped me be more creative in life,” says Clarke, who ended up writing Wrong Skin, an original stage play about religion, kinship and tragedy that was performed at Melbourne’s Next Wave festival.
“I think creativity’s great for journalists because we're always looking for unique ways to tell the story and it's not just narrative. I try to watch as many documentaries on as diverse topics as possible, different filmmakers, and you go, 'Wow that's a really cool way to do that, can I try to do that here?'
“We've constantly been striving to make it look interesting in terms of the way we tell the story.”
The title of their show, “Living Black”, also looms large in their approach.
“We like to take a bottom-up approach to the stories,” says Clarke. “We want it to be human so we don't want to flood our stories with politicians and ministers and experts, so it always comes from the point of view of community members who are living that issue.
“That's something that we're very strong about. That's something that I learned in theatre as well, that the interesting part is the human journey, not someone commenting on it.”
In that vein, Living Black recruits journalists from the communities it visits, mentoring a new cadet every year as Grant feels not enough Indigenous Australians see journalism as a career option.
"It's a one-year cadet programme,” she says. “If they complete it successfully we offer them a job and we've offered every one a job.
“We talk to kids when we go out to communities and Allan's forever letting kids use and play around with his camera and letting them know that this is a good industry to be in."
Living Black travels to communities far and wide. The new series kicks off with a profile of Tent Embassy protester Barbara Shaw in Canberra, then branches out to crocodile culling in Kakadu, surf life saving in Arnhem Land, suicides in Ski Beach and a midnight basketball programme in Kempsey, NSW, that is “a real positive story”, says Grant.
The show is also bringing back the Music Program it started last year to highlight Indigenous artists that get little exposure elsewhere.
Clarke, who previously worked as musical content coordinator for ABC TV’s Indigenous Unit, says: "We've had a lot of musicians from genres that you wouldn't think of, that a lot of Aboriginal people didn't traditionally sing.
“When I was young it was all country and western and then all hip hop, but now there's all these young ones experimenting with different styles of music."
As well as a musical education, the show also offers valuable lessons for activists and protesters, as Clarke has often observed the disconnect between those living the Aboriginal experience and those commenting on it.
“When I was at uni, coming from a small town and then meeting lots of young, very rich or middle class white kids who got really actively involved in the students' association, they would be really very angry about lots of issues that they really didn't know much about, particularly Aboriginal issues,” he says.
“As you get older you start growing up and you start still seeing some of those ill-informed but passionate people continuing that train of thought. I see a lot of really angry non-Indigenous protesters who are just really full of hate and anger."
Grant nods. "That doesn't do us any good at all," she says.
Clark continues: “I was just doing the gas hub story at James Price Point in Broome last year.
“There are some non-Indigenous activists who are coming in every week, just blowing in and out, and it's almost like it's a commodity, it's just like, instead of visiting here, they just visit protest sites around the country, so how effective is that?
“A lot of the Aboriginal community who were fighting against it were getting really angry about it, saying 'Who are these people coming in and causing trouble between us and the police?’
“A lot of my older family members who were activists back in the day are getting quite fragile and sometimes they will have a non-Indigenous Lefty urban person come in and push them and say 'you should be doing this and that' and they get really angry because in their mind they have an idea of what Aboriginal activism should be and in a way they're trying to lead.
“Before you go off half-cocked and saying this and that, look into our history and then you can go out and speak with those Aboriginal people who actually live those issues every day.
“There are a lot of non-Indigenous city dwellers who always have Aboriginal friends and then suddenly think they're Aboriginal, jump on the bandwagon, say 'I'm adopted by this mob' or 'I was given a skin name'..."
Grant nods in agreement and bursts out laughing.
"That's really lovely," continues Clarke, smiling. "But you know, it's like, 'Well, yeah, but you're not really Aboriginal.'”
The crux, he says, is being informed. “Education is the key, that's what we tell our mob.”
And television could be the key to that education. Comedian Groucho Marx once said: “I find television very educational. Every time someone switches it on I go into another room and read a good book.”
But television has come a long way since then. Now, Living Black offers a far better Aboriginal education than that in many schools — and not just those in Adelaide and Toowoomba.
To download an mp3 of the full interview, in which Karla Grant talks about the education of her own children, Allan Clarke talks about Aboriginal history, and both praise activists who stay permanently in remote communities, click here.