Torres Strait Islanders in the spotlight

November 17, 1993

Directed by David Caesar and Catriona McKenzie
Written by John Alsop, Alice Addison and Sue Smith
With Susie Porter and Charles Passi
SBS-TV, Thursdays 8.30pm


There's a very successful tradition of serials on Australian TV and RAN — Remote Area Nurse — fits comfortably within that thread. The idea of an outsider mixing with an established community has been a plot standard, and RAN is a creative meshing of an exotic location — Masig, an island in the Torres Strait — with more common dramatic fare.

It reminds me of A Country Practice if it had been relocated to the seaside so that it became another Seachange peopled instead by Indigenous characters who had lived there for eons. But that's its charm.

RAN is very good television indeed. Photographed like a feature film, it draws upon its location to establish enough of the coral, sea and sand trinity thing to make you want to go there — and no doubt because of RAN tourism will rise in the Torres Strait.

While the lead character, a white nurse played by Susie Porter, is the excuse upon which the whole exercise hangs, the real stars of RAN are the Islanders and the Indigenous actors who inhabit the various key roles. Ran is partly in English, native language and the local Creole, and after settling into an episode of RAN it becomes very clear that Masig Island is a long way from Ramsay Street.

And this is where RAN becomes something beyond standard fare. Masig Island is home to as many passionate, gifted and flawed people as there are anywhere else in Australia but these people are Islander people — Torres Strait Islanders — who have their own culture and traditions. So the dramas are going to be skewed a little differently to what you'd expect in Summer Bay. This makes for one helluva hook to get you to stay watching. Regardless of how much you so willingly identify with these people, the context of their story — a speck of land in Torres Strait — formats the main plot. And as you'd expect from a socially-concerned mini-series set in Indigenous Australia, you are going to get an airing of such topics as land rights, alcohol abuse and the like as de rigueur plot excuses.

But it's a cook's tour. These people are neither outcasts in their own land nor political firebrands, despite their proximity to Mer or Murray Island, which was the real estate upon which the 1992 Mabo land rights judgment was made. So you don't get exposed to imponderable Indigenous problems primarily because RAN has only dropped by to savour the atmosphere and experience island life via six consecutive weekly instalments.

For Torres Strait Islanders this is their time in the spotlight.

I don't know what the Islanders themselves think of RAN, as most Torres Strait Islanders today live on the Queensland mainland, but I'm sure it's going to be a source of much nostalgia. Neither is RAN anthropology.

RAN is, however, a pleasant way to spend a Thursday evening.

[Speaking Out, the ABC Local Radio Indigenous affairs program (Sunday nights, 9.30-10pm AEST) is seeking feedback on RAN from Torres Strait Islander viewers. You can register your interest by phoning (07) 3377 5222 during business hours.]

From Green Left Weekly, March 1, 2006.
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