Laying Down the Law in Heartland

Social melodrama, in its mundane television mode, is characterised by polarised moral conflicts accompanied by heightened emotional affect. In melodrama the family is often the site of intense moral and emotional conflict around issues of difference, whether of class, gender, age, race, ethnicity, sexuality or religion. These differences are usually polarised into a struggle between good and evil, and the resolution usually comes at some cost or involves some sort of sacrifice. Heartland begins with the generic sacrifice of a young Aboriginal woman who is brutally murdered on the beach in the rural town of Brooklyn Waters. The overarching plotline of the series is then organised around the efforts of Aboriginal police liaison officer Vincent Burunga (Ernie Dingo) to prove that Ricky (on remand in Sydney's Long Bay gaol) did not kill his girlfriend, despite his drunken confession to the crime. The second plotline involves the development of a love affair between Vincent and a white woman, Beth (Cate Blanchett), a radio producer who has left her husband in Sydney and arrived in Brooklyn Waters to settle her deceased uncle's estate. Beth discovers that her uncle Jock had a relationship with an Aboriginal woman from the Mission (the 'Mish') and that the gate between her uncle's house and the Mish is always open. From this basic plot material Heartland generates a number of subplots. The first is to do with Vincent discovering his place within (or between) two laws by returning to his outback community. The second revolves around a family from the Mish finding a lost son who had been removed to a white foster family thirty years earlier. The third is to do with Beth returning to her seductive, designer lifestyle in Sydney and seeing her husband and former colleagues in the radio world through new eyes. Each of these subplots generates a series of moral dilemmas which are also dramas of origins, desire and difference (see Chapter 5).

g As social melodrama, in the form of the mini-series, the various subplots js can be read as secondary elaborations of Freud's primary fantasies of origin

" and desire. As secondary fantasies, the conflicts and dilemmas of Heartland are ways of imagining and refiguring racial, sexual and generational dif-

< ferences in Australia. The linchpin of this refiguring is Vincent, the lead 2 character who stands between two laws. If the young Aboriginal woman is u sacrificed in order to initiate the narrative of racial hatred and injustice in

< a small town, in the end it is the town's reasonably well-intentioned white ^ cop, Phil, who is sacrificed so that order can be restored. The restoration cfi

£ of law comes after racial tensions explode in the town, forcing a reluctant

< Vincent back into the role of go-between. In an ending which reprises the figure of the black tracker, Vincent catches one of the serial killers, then carries Phil, his severely wounded mate, out of the scrub. Despite Vincent's desperate efforts, Phil dies in his arms in the back of the police car. Vincent literally lays the white law to rest in this scene. The series ends with Alf, the Aboriginal elder from the Mission, passing on what he knows of Country and Law to Ricky and young Jason, while Vincent and Beth contemplate their future together. As Vincent suggests with a sly look, this future might include 'breeding out the white'.

Heartland's reshaping of the social imaginary has the quality of after-wardness, ofhistorical consciousness orcultural memoryofcolonial conflict, being reshaped in the present.18 Such re-imagining of the past in terms of the law is built into Heartland's preoccupation with the difference between 'our way' and 'your way', a difference which entails unequal but shifting power relations between two laws. This difference is often untranslatable, so characters constantly find themselves caught up in an effort to explain and understand someone else, often in the context of heightened emotions of fear, desire and distrust.

The question of where the heartland of Australia might be located, geographically and culturally after the Mabo decision, is central to the exploration of the conflicts created by the plotlines in Heartland. Here Aboriginal characters interact with their own mob and with the white laws and practices that protect the ingrained racist habits of the settler community and normalise entrenched, everyday hatred, whether in the schoolyard or the criminal justice system. The moral centre of the film is located in the Aboriginal elders, whether in outback Western Australia, Vincent's traditional country, or in coastal Brooklyn Waters at the Mish. Early in the series, when Vincent returns home to make good the illness visited on his daughter by parental transgression of 'skin' laws, he learns that he still has a place in Aboriginal Law, even if he decides not to be further initiated. In the geographical location of the outback, on a working station run by the Aboriginal community who belong there, to country, the difference between the two g laws is stark and, for Beth, incomprehensible. 1

The experience of incomprehension is dramatised as a conflict between g f

Vincent's respect for Aboriginal Law as essential to his identity and Beth's g insistence that traditional practices such as payback are barbaric, and that T believing a child's sickness is brought on by being 'sung' is unenlightened ® superstition. The clash is resolved when Vincent refuses to do payback, g handing over the responsibility for Law to his brother. However, the child % recovers, confounding Beth's faith in secular enlightenment. A birth, fol- » lowed by a ceremony of identity conferred on the newborn by the women, and a first kiss between Beth and Vincent, resolve the conflict in utopian ways, but it is crucial that Vincent's return to the coast, to work the difficult ground between two laws in Brooklyn Waters, is sanctioned by a male elder.

This sanction enables Vincent to move between 'our ways' and 'your ways' in future episodes, as the subplots unfold around contemporary social issues to do with unemployment, alcohol and community violence; white resentment against 'handouts' to Aboriginal students and community businesses; the return of a lost child removed from his Aboriginal mother by welfare; the danger of Ricky becoming another black death in custody; and the temptation of a career in the city for Beth and for Ricky's younger brother, a promising young footballer who wants to go to the city to develop his talent. Each of these issues dramatises what is happening, now, between Indigenous and settler communities, after the frontier wars. A subtext of habitual, entrenched racism, as the legacy of our colonial past, runs through the series, its virulence inexplicable from within the diegetic world of Heartland. One way to understand the enigma of this virulent undertow, most evident in the community of Brooklyn Waters, is to think of Heartland as a metaphor for what Australian identity might be if the nation defined itself in terms of Aboriginality, in Langton's sense, as an intersubjective reality which is the hidden foundation of the nation. This intersubjective concept of the nation as Aboriginal is precisely what is foregrounded in Heartland.

Each of the locations explored in the series involves different kinds of conflicts between two laws. In outback Western Australia, the remote Aboriginal community looks like a model of self-sufficient enterprise, with the beef industry underpinning the community's cultural self-determination. Yet the series makes much of the enigmatic and untranslatable aspects of the Law which sustain Aboriginal identity, even as the remote outback community embraces modernity. The enigmatic is coded in the music and sound effects which accompany Vincent's return home. The Aboriginal song which Vincent and Beth sing together as they arrive and depart in their four-wheel g drive, and the tentative dance Beth performs with the women, appear to js open a doorway between two cultures. Yet the threshold is impossible for " Beth to cross. Her insistent questions and bewildered complaints, as she finds herself in incomprehensible situations, are often met with silence. In

< the end she has to learn by doing, by joining the crowd of children gathered 2 around the new baby as they too learn the rituals and traditions open to u them under the Law.

Í The situation is not reversed for Vincent when he finds himself in Sydney,

< staying with Beth and her former husband Garth in their harbourside house £ with champagne views. There is nothing untranslatable in Garth's compet-

< itive bonhomie, just as there is no enigma in the actions of the traffic police when they pull Vincent over for driving an expensive sports car up a one-way street. If Vincent's sense of identity, his origin, has been tested and made stronger by his return home, Beth's identity, without origin, has little to support it during her marriage crisis. There are no elders in her world, no place to which she belongs in relationship with the land and with others. In Sydney there are only transient friends, a mortgaged property, and a dog-eat-dog media hierarchy whose values, determined by ratings and the manipulations of talkback radio, no longer coincide with hers.

If Vincent and Beth represent different worlds, from which they are both in some sense alienated, the true historical drama of identity, of being caught between two worlds, is played out in Brooklyn Waters (that rural in-between place which is neither city nor outback) by Eddie/Ben, the lost boy taken from the Mish by the welfare. He has two names, two lives, two families to juggle, and no memory of ever being Eddie. His attempts to embrace an Aboriginal identity flounder as he is assailed by a series of untranslatable messages from his wife, his rediscovered community at the Mish, and from the white townspeople who say, 'makes no difference of course'. It does make a difference, of course, but the difference is enigmatic. He is told by Alf, the wise elder at the Mish, to feel his Aboriginality, his lost origins, in his heart and through the soles of his feet. Alf tells Eddie it doesn't matter that he can't remember his family: they remember him. But it does matter, and there is no resolution to Eddie/Ben's story.

All the ends do not tie up neatly in Heartland. The series ends in the bush where the rural town, with its history of embittered race relations, remains the site of daily struggles (exemplified by wise community elder Alf and liaison officer Vincent) to make a difference in the present. But the shift in perspective that the viewer is asked to make in Heartland involves thinking about what happened after the British colony pushed the frontier out from the first urban settlement, at Sydney Cove, to the bush, and to the outback. 'What happened' is perhaps best understood through Eddie's story: recovering his lost narrative as a stolen child (his origins repressed and g layered over by a social policy of assimilation) points to the bigger story of 1 how the nation might recover from repressing its origins in acts of disposses- g f sion of identity, language, land and culture, once guaranteed by Aboriginal g Law. Heartland suggests that Indigenous Law itself, though still powerful, is T now even more difficult to transmit to the next generation. As we discover ® through Eddie's thwarted efforts to assume his lost identity too quickly, and g Beth's halting efforts to understand Vincent, reparation is a slow, gradual % process of learning through contact, of not giving up on what is so difficult » to translate. As Alf is always advising, 'Give it time'. However, as Eddie's exit from the series (after failing to save an Aboriginal enterprise because the equipment has been stolen by one of the white bureaucrats) demonstrates, the justifiable impatience of young men for rapid change works against the slow workings of moral authority vested in an untranslatable Law. The story of young Aboriginal women in terms of the Law is a mute point in the series. Their narrative function (as sacrificed victims of malevolent racism or as city lawyers making a dent in the justice system for young Aboriginal men) restores cultural transmission of the Law as men's business. Women's business is touched on but remains enigmatic, becoming a source of humour in the series, a shortcut for settling differences between Vincent and Beth.

The moral heartland of the series derives its authority from tradition, from the Law as it is practised in Vincent's outback country. This moral authority also survives, in a less powerful form, on the Mish, through male and female elders for whom 'our way' of doing things has evolved as each new policy era inaugurated new forms of survival and endurance in Aboriginal communities. Heartland imagines this history as a story of endurance through the repetition of everyday encounters between the survivors of the frontier wars. These encounters, which culminate in what the tabloid media might call 'a race riot' at the police station, bring into disrepute the law of the land imposed by British settlement. The main achievement of Heartland is that it requires the viewer to bear witness, emotionally, to the daily struggle of living under two laws of the land, whereby the dominant law is unable and unwilling to translate the extraneous messages coming from the original Law of this land. The main problem obstructing social justice and destroying bush communities, Heartland suggests, is the failure to recognise the ongoing effect of terra nullius. This founding myth created a history of denial that there is anything at all to be translated, that there are two laws shaping the reciprocal experience of Aboriginality in Australia. This is not to suggest that settler Australians should aspire to become Aboriginal, further appropriating a Law and a land which is not theirs for the taking. Rather, g Heartland, coming so soon after the Mabo decision through the large-scale js conflicts of social melodrama, suggests the need not so much for a symbolic

" reconciliation of two laws as for a profound, imaginative recognition of the enigmatic messages coming from 'country'. This would include recogni-

< tion of what is untranslatable in those messages. Beth, like Eddie, is always 2 positioned as the one who doesn't understand. Unlike Eddie, she hangs u around, learning as she goes that there are indeed things she might never « understand. These things have a lot to do with the way history is embodied

< as a kind of unconscious to which Vincent himself does not have access.

£ This unconscious imbues messages from the other with a strangeness or an

< enigma that is not easy to translate.19 At times Vincent cannot explain to Beth what he knows or what he feels because the meaning is in his history rather than in his head. The difficulty of understanding different histories of race, gender and culture in the bush, the city and the outback is raised explicitly in the final episode of Heartland when Beth says to Phil that she doesn't think she'll ever understand Vincent. Phil's question to Beth lingers in the air, leaving Beth and the viewer to ponder the answer, 'Because he's black? Or just 'cause he's Vincent?' This enigma of social identity (blackness) versus the singularity of the other (Vincent) is precisely the territory that Dennis O'Rourke explores in Cunnamulla, a controversial montage of ten characters inhabiting an isolated rural town in outback Queensland.

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