Change is trickling in, but our arc leans towards self-determination: Tony Briggs

Tony Briggs is a Yorta Yorta/Wurundjeri creative based in Naarm. Among his many credits and accomplishments, Tony is the creator and writer of the Helpmann award-winning stage play, The Sapphires. The film version premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012 and, at the 2013 AACTA awards, it won 11 of 12 award categories.

Tony is the Artistic Director of Naarms’ first Indigenous Film Festival, The Birrarangga Film Festival. The festival showcases Films from across the globe to local audiences biannually.

In dialogue with Tiwi Producer, Libby Collins, Tony centres the power of working together and connection in his conception of best practice. Tony reflects on the expectation – ubiquitous across the arts sector – that First Nations practitioners are ready to double as “First Nations consultants”, beyond the scope of their work, and considers self-determination’s role in distributing the economic benefits of First Nations content to First Nations communities.

What would you consider ‘best practice’ in your field when developing, engaging and approaching First Nations content?

One of the driving forces for me has been to be a part of the change I want to see on stage and screen. One of my dreams is to work on productions with an all-black cast and crew. It’s about our mob being appropriately seen, represented, and adequately respected for the culturally rich and diverse people that we are.

I think today, what’s happening is that our mob are claiming our own space. We’re doing the best we can to support each other. Part of my bigger picture is seeing that reflected on the screens. I want to feel this reflection too. I want audiences to understand who we are by watching and listening to stories about us created by us. This has been spoken about for years, but we’re not quite there yet.

I’ve stayed involved in this industry for so long because I love what I do and want to be part of that change.

I do see small changes, but our patience has worn thin, and rightly so.

Tell us more about how this can be reflected or the constraints where it hasn’t been reflected…

Over the years, performing on stage with all-black cast members has been the most memorable experience. This is a space where you get to be the actor, director, or whatever role you’re brought onto a production for. It’s a safe space. It’s one where you’re not the only black performer, where the assumptions are not that you should also be the cultural advisor, sometimes script advisor, and even the shot advisor for a film, telling them what direction they can and can’t shoot in. I was asked on a recent job to find someone who can do the Welcome to Country! I couldn’t just concentrate on my work. These are the conditions and expectations of First Nations practitioners in the arts.

How do you think you exhibit best practices in your work?

When I consider ‘best practice’, I think about how hard it is to be everything to everyone, and then I think about how whitefellas are allowed to exist in a workspace. They’re allowed to focus specifically on what they’re hired for. It’s what I crave. I don’t want to be the answer to every white producer’s cultural problem or the advisor for everything. After thirty-odd years in this business, it’s frustrating to answer the same mundane questions where whitefellas can only be bothered because they’re terrified of being cancelled. It’s tedious and psychologically taxing. The best thing is for the industry to position itself where those questions don’t ever need to be asked around inclusivity. They need to educate themselves and get it done.

Controlling the narrative is vital and can be the beauty of how some people use social media. Being able to retain what we consider representative of who we are as Aboriginal people. It’s about us having control of that and not asking for it – but taking it.

What’s front and centre in everything I do is who I am, as an Aboriginal person, with culture, with language, with the community, and to be as respectful as possible. It’s got to be mutual respect. It doesn’t matter who you are or you’re who you’re working with.

It is about maintaining that dignity in your work, being present for the next generation, and supporting them in the best way possible. So, when significant opportunities come, I try to bring others along.

What is important to me, whether in my Country or other peoples’ Countries, is to bring people in and jointly express our culture in the most respectful way we can, working together. I did a stage show where I played an ‘Old Man’, a staunch leader of his mob, and was terrified because it wasn’t in my Country. I’m here playing this iconic hero of the colonial era, but I’m not from where he is from, and yet I have to be him and speak his language in his Country. It wasn’t until I got the blessing from the old people watching the show that I felt I was doing the right thing. Such a relief.

I remember my first job on television was ‘Neighbours’ when I was about 19. It was my first week, and I think it was the second scene I’d ever shot, so it was early in the piece. I hear a bit of a kerfuffle. Everyone is standing around talking about the script. One of the actors pointed at the line, “Is he Aboriginal?” and came up to me and said, “how do you feel about this? Is it needed?”. I thought, “this is my first job, I’m 19, and I’ve never been on set before, ” but I knew the line had no context and said, “Scratch it out. It doesn’t need to be said”. I was just happy to have the freaking job. I was grateful to her for asking, but I found that experience was repeated in different ways over the years to come. It’s really tiring. I want to be able to show up to work without anyone caring or tiptoeing around issues. If you get it wrong, you must deal with it and learn from it and move on and take it as a learning for the next one.

I suppose we’ve had to make our mistakes and understandings in the white world the white way – so it’s their turn now.

Have you seen a change in the industry? Is it moving for the better?

I’ve seen a lot of goodwill and a bit of change; there’s lip service, but people are working for fairness or wanting things to shift, but the changes are incremental and restricted.

For example, there can only be one [Aboriginal] movie star, and we can only have one black female movie star; we’ll [the industry] let them have a couple of little celebrities here and there. Change exists in ebbs and flows and trickles in, but who is allowing that? Who’s controlling that? Our conversation’s arc has been leaning toward self-determination, and it’s important to raise it here.

How do you see self-determination fitting into the industry?

Creating avenues for our mob and seeing others doing their thing. Until the economic benefits come the way of our communities and are not just restricted to a handful, the shift won’t be as significant as it should be.

We must also consider what’s being put on the screen and what’s not. Our stories and the precious ideas of what this Country is for the world to see, are few and far between.

What do you hope to see in the future?

I hope to see our stories and culture represented in unique ways that still hold on to the old values and express and maintain our stories that can be handed down and utilised for this generation and the generations after. That’s what I hope.

When I started in theatre with other mobs, we lived in the same household metaphorically. We were on the same page. I brought my craziness from my mob into the room, and another person brought her madness into the room, and together we developed a creative and cultural synergy.

It’s invigorating and nourishing for the black spirit for us to be physically together like that. It doesn’t happen as much as it should, and it’s more valuable for our mob than emails or Zoom meetings. I hope to see more of these experiences in the future.

I don’t want our mob to become complacent. What’s important for us is to unite and move forward collectively because we’re much stronger together. For sure, without a doubt.


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