Erica Glynn and Rarriwuy Hick on the set of 'True Colours'.

Erica Glynn never saw herself making a crime drama, but in co-creating, writing and directing SBS and NITV’s True Colours, she feels she has achieved more than in her entire screenmaking career.

Towards the end of her tenure as head of Screen Australia’s First Nations department, a role she held from 2010-2014, Glynn was approached by singer-songwriter Warren H. Williams with an idea for a whodunnit with an unexpected twist.

She was intrigued by the idea, but the cincher was that Williams wanted to turn his hand to acting and star in it – she knew he’d have a knack for performance.

After Glynn left the agency, she sat down with Williams, and writers Steven McGregor and Danielle Maclean, to map out his vision for a show that would also showcase Arrernte art, cultural practices and language.

Glynn found in the nature of the mystery there was chance to subvert audience expectations, and offer something unique and different in the oeuvre of First Nations storytelling.

“There was also the opportunity to do what I always like to do, which is talk about our culture. That it’s not a stagnant thing; it’s constantly open and undergoing change in most elements, but in some elements it’s strongly rooted in the ancient – that it’s complex, rich, vibrant and moving all the time,” she tells IF.

“It’s the turf I like to play in.”

Warren H. Williams as Samuel.

True Colours marks NITV’s first move into long-form drama. Set against the backdrop of Mparntwe (Alice Springs) and Yeperenye (East MacDonnell Ranges), the four-parter is led by Rarriwuy Hick as Detective Toni Alma, who is sent to investigate a suspicious car accident in Perdar Theendar, the (fictional) Aboriginal community she left as a child.

The beauty of Aboriginal art and the sometimes devious practices in the global art market lead Alma on the hunt for a killer in her hometown.

Williams stars as Toni’s uncle, Samuel, a fellow cop, acting alongside Luke Arnold, Miranda Otto, Errol Shand, Emilie de Ravin, Trisha Morton Thomas and Ben Oxenbould.

Glynn and co. brought the project to Bunya Productions, given their previous work in First Nations communities and in Central Australia – Glynn is the sister of Warwick Thornton, with whom Bunya made Sweet Country and Mystery Road S2 – as well as the fact they are “risktakers”.

Penny Smallacombe was the lead producer with David Jowsey and Greer Simpkin. Screen Australia’s First Nations provided development and major production investment in association with SBS, NITV, Screen Territory and Screen NSW.

True Colours is in both English and Arrernte, with Glynn noting it was important the series mirror how Arrernte is spoken in modern day-to-day life – up to 25 per cent of the Alice Springs population speaks either central, western or eastern Arrernte.

“I pushed and pushed and pushed to have more and more Arrernte. We screened it in Alice Springs last Sunday, and one of my cousins who lives at Amoonguna [where True Colours was shot] said to me, ‘I thought it was in Arrernte, Erica? There’s hardly any Arrernte in it! It should have all been in Arrernte!’ I guess for mainstream, white audiences – for want of a better expression – it will seems like there’s tons of it. But for us, it obviously feels like there is not enough of it.

“But I am happy with where it’s at because I feel like we’ve got that balance right between all the Arrernte and bits of English and how it feels – you can say a sentence in Arrernte and then the next sentence is in English. It’s very fluid.”

Erica Glynn on the set of ‘True Colours’. (Photo: Bradley Patrick)

Glynn had Hick in her mind for Toni throughout the writing process, particularly as she knew she was adept with language – Hick is an Yolngu woman but Glynn had previously seen a short film where she was speaking Tiwi. “Beyond that, she’s just a bloody fabulous, hard working actress – good at it and gorgeous. It was just the right thing to do.”

“I was happy to entertain other ideas, but really no one else wanted anybody else. It was always going to be Rarriwuy.”

Similarly Glynn always saw Williams as Samuel, though he went through stages of wanting to play all the male characters.

“For me, it was always Samuel and I’m so glad he came to the party.

“I think he’s pulled it off amazingly. No one would be able to tell he’s never acted before in his life, as he just did it and understood it. He has a natural gift for it. I hope he gets lots and lots of other roles.”

Williams is not the only first time actor in the cast. True Colours features a host local talent, many in their first acting role: Sabella Kngwarraye Ross Turner, Kurt Abbott, Kumalie Kngwarraye, Natalie Pepperill, Warren ‘Wazza’ Williams, Grant Wallace, Janaya Kopp, Siobhan Breaden, Genise Williams, Martin McMillian, Keenan Mitchell, Stella McMillian, Rosario Young and Waylon Dixon.

Glynn notes this was in part dictated by the fact the actors needed to be able to speak Arrernte. She found in the Amoonguna community, which the production was welcomed into by Traditional Owner Lynette (Chooky) Ellie, a complete willingness to be involved in the project.

“People are desperate to see themselves represented; they’re proud of their places and proud of their homes and they want to see that [on screen].

“That’s a very different attitude to when I first started off in screen in the early ’80s. There was a lot of fear around screen because of the terrible things that have happened to Aboriginal people in their representations. But now, people are keen as. They see stuff coming out of Central Australia that Warwick [Thornton], Dylan [River] or Rachel [Perkins] have made – and they go ‘We want a piece of that.’ Thank goodness!”

In the last few years as a director Glynn has helmed a number of documentaries, including She Who Must Be Loved, about her mother, Freda Glynn, the co-founder of CAAMA (Central Australian Aboriginal Media Association).

To spin around and shoot drama was “fun, anxious madness”, but ultimately Glynn walked away wanting to do more – she is currently working on a feature film which she says is getting close to getting up. She directed two episodes of True Colours, with McGregor shooting the other two.

“When we finished shooting, I walked off going, ‘I want to do that again. I want to do that again so I get it better next time because you know where you failed and you know where you succeeded.”

Having played a pivotal role in bringing new First Nations talent to screen over her career, Glynn is proud to see a wide variety of projects gracing Australian screens today.

“I think what we are seeing in Black screen in the country now is a really diverse range of representations, which is such as good thing. And we’re seeing a shift from financiers, broadcasters and what-have-you to back that Aboriginal voice – beginning to understand that it is diverse. That’s a good thing – a really good thing.

“We want more languages on screen. There are so many Aboriginal languages across this country and we want them all on screen. Even the ones that are being revitalised, there’s a place for it. It’s rich; our country is rich with this stuff.”

True Colours is on SBS and NITV each night until July 7 8.30pm as part of NAIDOC Week and available to stream on SBS On Demand.

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