On ‘True Colours’ and creating Indigenous genre mashups

As True Colours goes into production around Alice Springs, we delve into the origins of the idea.
Indigenous actress Rarriwuy Hick looks seriously at the camera

Indigenous series True Colours is now shooting in the McDonnell Ranges as a joint SBS-NITV project by Bunya Productions. 

Bunya has a headlock on the Indigenous cop genre, aka desert noir, with Goldstone, Sweet Country, High Ground and even The Drover’s Wife all under its banner. Mystery Road started as a feature and became two series for the ABC. 

The company has benefitted enormously from its close association with Ivan Sen, whose mother Donella is a Gamilaroi woman from northern NSW, who was raised in Toomelah, the inspiration for another feature by her son. Actor Aaron Pedersen, from the Arrernte and Arabana nations in Central Australia, is the key to the Mystery Road + Goldstone franchise. 

Read: Bunya, Ivan Sen and Loveland

In a way, the original attempt to create the desert noir genre can be seen in Arthur Upfield’s Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte, who moved from novels to TV in 1971. In ‘desperation’, the producers chose an English actor to black-face for the titular role, to the disgust of Aboriginal activists who had a list of fine Indigenous actors aching for a decent role. 

Boney was a true low point. These days the Indigenous Cop character gains tremendous power from authenticity, the flip-flop of power symbols, and the cultural ache for complex, powerful Aboriginal roles.

The idea for True Colours

With all that serious stuff as background, the idea for True Colours goes one step forwards and is a wonderful genre mashup. Here desert noir collides with the ultra-polite and uber-European trope of chicanery in the high end art market, often around theft and attempts to get works back to their ‘true owners’.

You can see what is coming. There is a whole rage about ownership and Aboriginal art, in which cultural possession underlies work which is ultimately purchased as investments. There is something very icky about the transaction, though at least the experts can work out (and maybe enforce) systems of fair payment. 

According to the announcement, ‘The beauty of Indigenous art and the sometimes-devious practices in the global art market take Detective Toni Alma on an epic hunt for a killer. Spanning her small Northern Territory community and art galleries across the globe, this is a murder mystery like no other, exploring culture, community and the very human pursuit of identity and belonging.’

The idea for the show is credited to Arrernte singer-songwriter Warren H. Williams and co-creator, writer and director Erica Glynn.

She talked briefly to Screenhub in the middle of production. Briefly as in five minutes.

Development

‘Actually, Warren approached me,’ she said. ‘He had ambitions to extend his country and western singing to performing. And he said, “What about a cop show?” And I said, “Yeah, no worries.” For us it is that simple really.

‘It’s been bubbling around in the pipeline since 2014, actually, when I left Screen Australia. So we’ve been working on it in bits and pieces with CAAMA.’

Eventually Bunya came on as lead production company and Erica Glynn shared the writing and directing work with Steven McGregor, who has already written Sweet Country and a bunch of Mystery Road for Bunya while he built his directing career on documentaries and television. Darwin based director, writer and producer Danielle MacLean was also a writer on the show.

How did the project take on that art story dimension?

‘It was just an idea,’ said Glynn. ‘If you live in Central Australia Aboriginal art is everywhere. It’s a real economic thing for both Aboriginal people, artists,  and community, and for whitefellas dealing art and supporting our community arts groups. So there’s no avoiding doing anything in Central Australia without dealing with Aboriginal art. 

‘This then brings, I guess, a responsibility to talk a bit about where that art comes from. And that Aboriginal people are beginning to be really business savvy and part of that business side of us.’

Characters

‘There’s two police people in our program,’ she said. ‘One is Samuel who is played by Warren himself, who is the community police officer. They are very common here in Central Australia, they work in the community to liaise with the proper police people and they are a vital part of the whole police force. Tanya, Toni for short, is an Aboriginal police woman based in town, who is actually Samuel’s niece.’

She is played by Rarriwuy Hick, a dancer and theatre performer who is building a career in television, through Wentwork, The Gods of Wheat Street and Cleverman. She is a Yolngu woman, who hails from Dhalinybuy, and is involved in the #ourkidsbelongwithfamily campaign.

Ultimately this is a modest production with a lot of travel in Central Australia. As Glynn explained her schedule, ‘We’ve been in police offices for the last three days, and before that we were in hospital rooms. As of tomorrow we are out in Aboriginal communities and Central Australian landscapes and we will be much more outdoors. I am really looking forward to that.’

The DoP is Murray Lui, who shot Top End Wedding, and many other Indigenous television projects, along with some of Rosehaven and The Family Law.

Going glocal

How do they build in the international component? I had visions of bitter confrontations in a London auction room. Unfortunately a hunt for art criminals paid by European billionaires would be very expensive to shoot. Erica Glynn provided the practical answer. ‘There is somebody in town here curating art for the international market.’ It is an effective but unromantic necessity.

Erica Glynn herself is not a self-publicist. She emerged from CAAMA, the Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association, which was co-founded by her mother, Freda Glynn, a force of nature whose descendants include Warwick Thornton, Tanith Glynn-Maloney and Dylan River.

Read: Freda Glynn – from little things, big things grow

Glynn is a Drama Directing graduate of AFTRS, and ran the Indigenous Department at Screen Australia between 2010 and 2014. She has a good career in documentary, recognised by the Documentary Australia Foundation with its $50,000 fellowship in 2017.

In the drama space, she is credited as an executive producer on Redfern Now, The Gods of Wheat Street, Redfern Now and 8MMM Aboriginal Radio, and was both a writer and director on the Black Comedy series.

Two of her documentaries are stand-outs – In My Own Words and She Who Must Be Loved, about her mother Freda and her family. Which is a hoot.

David Tiley was the Editor of Screenhub from 2005 until he became Content Lead for Film in 2021 with a special interest in policy. He is a writer in screen media with a long career in educational programs, documentary, and government funding, with a side order in script editing. He values curiosity, humour and objectivity in support of Australian visions and the art of storytelling.