It’s a 40-something-degree day in the Pilbara desert and a motley crew of local kids are facing off against a Shetland pony — who has been holding a man hostage up a small tree for several weeks.
According to a coin-operated Elvis Presley fortune-telling machine, the pony’s captive has profound knowledge that is vital to the posse’s quest to save their world.
Despite their reservations about the man being “yurlga-walyga” — ‘absent minded’ or crazy, in the local Ngarluma language — the kids huddle together and scheme up some chucklesome ruses to distract the innocuous-looking pony — including pulling its tail, yarning, and even crafting a mechanical friend.
This delightfully strange and wonderful conundrum is a scene from Thalu, a new series from National Indigenous Television (NITV) and ABC Me.
Thalu is a cheeky, post-apocalyptic sci-fi kids drama conceived, developed, shot and edited in the Pilbara town of Ieramugadu (or Roebourne), and grounded in Ngarluma culture, language and lore.
NITV channel manager Tanya Orman describes it as “The Goonies meets Mad Max, lo-fi sci-fi”.
Across 10 episodes, the band of local kids — Em, Hudson, Keile, Lali, Noodles, Samara and Vinka — encounter mystical singing Nannas who play cards, legendary outlaws, and an Aunty desperate for a yarn, as they traverse spinifex-speckled red desert and rocky mountain ranges.
Their goal? To collect eight sacred stones and a key, and reach Thalu — a powerful ancient and sacred site — before the villainous ‘Takers’ do.
The “bad fellas” or Takers are a faceless faction concealed within an apocalyptic dust cloud, a cancerous blight ailing the Pilbara people and land.
At a time when there are concerns that Australian-made drama, children’s content and Indigenous stories on our televisions are vulnerable, Thalu provides a roadmap for children’s TV that works respectfully and inclusively with community from the ground up, offers training opportunities for local talent, and empowers Indigenous kids with their ‘own little dreaming’.
A new standard
Thalu is the result of an unprecedented, top-to-bottom model for community consultation: local producers Tyson Mowarin and Robyn Marais (NITV’s slow-tv documentary Marni) brought together Ieramugadu community elders and young people to workshop ideas with seasoned creatives like Beck Cole and Sam Paynter, both screenwriters for Little J and Big Cuz.
The mystical Nannas who appear in Thalu are the very same elders who have consulted on and guided the production since participating in the first workshop, in 2018.
For Elaine Crombie (who plays peculiar desert pedlar Bits N Bobs), there’s no question that “that’s the way it should be”.
Leading the series as Australia’s newest heroes and heroines are not one but seven Indigenous kids cast from the local area.
Not only did these first-time actors have input on their characters, they also spent two weeks rehearsing with director Dena Curtis — who is also a producer on NITV series Grace Beside Me — and their hero, ABC Play School presenter and Cleverman actor Hunter Page-Lochard.
Like mining, film and TV productions sometimes approach communities with an extract mindset.
“What happens sometimes in Australia is that people just go into communities and take stories, clear out of town and don’t leave anything behind,” says ABC Children’s Content EP Mary-Ellen Mullane.
Mullane (who started developing Thalu in her previous role as senior commissioning editor at NITV) says developing local talent behind the camera was just as important to the creative team as developing the local talent in front.
On the eight-week-long shoot, attachments to almost every department on set were offered to anyone in the community, with a view to inspiring the next generation of storytellers.
‘Its own little Dreaming’
When Page-Lochard received a call to direct an episode of Thalu, the working title at the time was Neomad, as it was initially based on the interactive Aboriginal comic book of the same name — a three-part cyberpunk space opera set in the Murujuga (the Burrup Peninsula).
Although Thalu quickly morphed into its own standalone concept, Page-Lochard says he was immediately drawn to the project because of the Neomad connection — “because I knew exactly what the world was and what they were trying to do”.
“It’s an alternative reality that mimics a little bit of our [real world] issues but kind of has a softer tone to it,” says Page-Lochard.
Thalu arrives on ABC iview in the wake of mining giant Rio Tinto detonating explosive charges that destroyed a 46,000-year-old culturally significant Aboriginal site in the Pilbara.
Page-Lochard grew up watching animated satires like Kiwi cult-comedy series bro’Town and US series The Boondocks (set for a HBO reboot later this year), both of which offer social commentary and stories from a Pacific Island diaspora and African-American perspective, respectively.
He says that Neomad and Thalu, like bro’Town and The Boondocks, come from an authentic place because they are created by voices from the same community they seek to represent, normalise and satirise.
“This is genius, this is great, this is something that we’ve always needed,” the director told ABC Arts.
‘All kids in Australia deserve it’
For Page-Lochard, Thalu, like NITV’s ground-breaking animated series Little J and Big Cuz, normalises seeing Indigenous people and hearing the diversity of their languages on screen, without creating a sense of othering.
Referring to the reckoning happening in arts and media in tandem with the Black Lives Matter movement, Page-Lochard says: “With what’s happening around the world, I think now more than ever is the best time to start producing more inclusive children’s shows.”
Tanya Orman, who helped launch NITV in 2007, recalls: “[Growing up] in this country, there was a medium in your house that was telling you that you’re either not a part of the community or that you’re in dysfunction.”
“We believe that bad public perception can lead to bad public policy,” she says, citing the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, which recognised that the negative portrayal of Indigenous people in the media affected Indigenous people’s self-perception and shaped public opinion — and subsequently, policy.
Thalu, along with Little J and Big Cuz and NITV’s first scripted live-action drama, Grace Beside Me, is just the beginning of the broadcaster’s long-term strategy to invest in children’s content.
“The majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are under the age of 25,” says Orman.
She says a core priority for NITV is “to show young ones, potentially what they could be, so they can see the diversity of opportunities for them.”
“That’s why we have to connect with them at a young age and then also provide them a place where they can see themselves belonging in their own country.”
Thalu is streaming now on ABC iview.