The Gods of Wheat Street: An Aboriginal Home and Away

The Gods of Wheat Street: An Aboriginal Home and Away

This Aboriginal Neighbours or Home and Away has a mythic twist.

"You know how sometimes you sit down with a plan and start writing according to the plan? This wasn't like that at all.''

When Jon Bell started writing what would become The Gods of Wheat Street he had no road map or destination in sight.

He didn't have a commission. He wasn't bonded to a grant. There were no expectations of him. He had no deadline, let alone something to sell.

All he had was an idea about a mechanic who's looking after his kids and hoping against hope that his wife comes back.


Looking back, Bell says it was a luxury and a liberation to work this way; akin to writing a first novel that gestates for as long as it needs in a desk drawer.

Bell, who was raised in Casino in northern NSW where he still lives, made films as a teenager, studied law, then dance, before having a child. He was a working single dad for many years.

He made a couple of shorts, wrote two episodes of Redfern Now and only now, aged 40, does the self-taught scriptwriter call himself a professional.

''It's been a long and twisted journey,'' he says.

Bell's career and experience don't fit the typical TV-industry trajectory; fittingly, the six-part The Gods of Wheat Street is also woven from fresh, unconventional and unexpected threads.

''An Aboriginal Neighbours or Home and Away,'' as Bell once called it, it evolves around patriarch Odin Freeburn (Kelton Pell), a thoroughly decent and gentle soul who struggles financially and physically to look after an unruly extended family.

His wife has sought out the greener pastures of the big city. His brother, Ares (Bruce Carter), is in jail. His boss has just died and the business is for sale. He's too frazzled to notice the beautiful woman who loves him. And just to make matters worse, his mother keeps visiting him to remind him of the promises he made to her as she lay dying.

Bell started writing The Gods of Wheat Street at the height of the ''Kevin 07'' election campaign. In his script, Australia had become a republic and elected an Aboriginal president (this was one year before Barack Obama became President of the United States).

''Odin's grandfather was telling him the story of his family, it was from the future looking back at the past, which is our present,'' Bell explains.

The political element was pulled back, but the nostalgic prism of the present viewed from the future remained. ''It didn't feed the story content, but it fed the tone.''

In handing his characters mythological names (among them, Isolde, Tristan, Electra, Athena), he wanted to not only infuse them with grandeur but to show they were in charge of their destinies.

''In my life, I feel very much in control. I don't feel like I'm thrown around like flotsam and jetsam, which is how Aboriginal people are often represented in the media, as if they don't have a choice or are victims of bigger circumstances. These guys, even though they're crashing into things, are powerful and decisive characters.''

The fantasy element is also a far cry from the hokey variety that is served up in most TV storytelling. There are no special effects or portentous omens to signpost the supernatural. Instead, Brendan Lavelle's cinematography relies on luminous dusks and the dusty, summer colours of regional Casino to depict a fairytale-like place where past and present co-exist.

''Spirituality is one of the things I wanted to introduce to the mix,'' Bell says. ''I don't feel separate from people who have passed on that I've been close to. That's a fairly universal experience and it's quite a specific Aboriginal experience as well.''

For example, the eerie chill of walking over a grave: ''In The Gods of Wheat Street, it would mean something if someone got that feeling. The supernatural and normal life are very connected.''

The drama is also a showcase for established and emerging indigenous actors: in the former school, Lisa Flanagan and Kelton Pell; in the latter, Frederick Copperwaite, spellbinding as Odin's nemesis, the wiry, twitchy and certainly dangerous Jonesy Brown; Bruce Carter as Ares; Rarriwuy Hick as Electra and Shari Sebbens as Isolde.

The musical feature The Sapphires, the loosely based true story of four indigenous women who sang to the troops in the Vietnam War, opened doors for the WAAPA- and NIDA-trained Sebbens, but it was The Gods of Wheat Street's depiction of Aboriginal people that cemented her attraction to it.

''It completely does away with anyone's idea of what it is to be Aboriginal. It's just a family that goes to work, sits down at a dinner table, has arguments, loves each other, watches footy. A big part of the movement that's happening now, is indigenous people are in control of the production, the writing, the directing. They cease to be indigenous stories and just become stories.''

In tandem with Isolde, who dreams of becoming a fashion designer, Sebbens credits her mother for supporting her acting ambitions.

At high school, it was assumed that her mother would become a domestic servant, unlike the other girls who would be teachers.

''Of course, my mother went on to do amazing things in education, she put herself through uni in her early 40s. Being told 'no' to so many things, she would never do that to her children.''

Ironically, Sebbens thought she wouldn't be offered indigenous roles on account of her fair complexion, but that changed with The Sapphires.

''Actors, regardless of their race, just want to play great characters.''

She thought that theatre would usher in an era of colourblind casting, but credits the film and TV work of actors such as Deborah Mailman and Aaron Pedersen for paving the way ''for indigenous actors to play roles that aren't necessarily indigenous specific''.

The Gods of Wheat Street, ABC1, Saturday, 8.30pm.

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