Passion project's long journey to the screen
ON THE other side of the world, thousands of kilometres from his family's native lands, Aaron Fa'Aoso had a light-bulb moment.
The actor, best known for his roles in The Straits, East West 101 and Black Comedy, decided to make a documentary series about the unique history and culture of the Torres Straits. Now, six years later, his passion project Blue Water Empire has finally come to the screen.
"It was 2013 and I was filming a series over in Munich, Germany and I was just inspired to write," he says.
"I got this idea to do a documentary on the Torres Straits. There had never been one, and over the course of two to three days I didn't leave the apartment. I wrote the treatment and then I sent it off to the ABC, and they got back to me pretty quickly.
"I don't know what was going on. Something dropped in from the ether and I just went for it."
The three-part drama documentary, which debuted last night, spans the past 300 years from pre-colonial through to contemporary times.
Key stories told by men and women of the region are brought to life by dramatic re-enactments from an all-star cast including Fa'Aoso, Jimi Bani, Ryan Corr, Damian Walshe-Howling, Roy Billing, Geoff Morrell, Jeremy Lindsay Taylor, Peter Phelps, Merwez Whaleboat, Robert Mammone and Damian de Montemas.
Making the series was a learning experience for Fa'Aoso, a descendant of the Samu and Keodal clans of Saibai Island who grew up in Cairns.
"Unearthing all this history made me realise there was some I'd known about, but when we really immersed ourselves in the events and characters it was just mind blowing," he says.
"It gave me a real sense of pride, and also made me realise why I am the way that I am. My people have always been fighting for social justice, whether it was for better wages, housing or education. We've never stepped back. Being one of Australia's first nations people, it's important for my people to be acknowledged for our history."
Set to a soundtrack composed by Will Kepa, the series explores how Torres Strait Islanders have sustained their cultural heritage throughout the impact of 200 years of European settlement and kept traditions alive in modern life.
"There's a repatriation of language and culture occurring amongst my generation and the younger generation," Fa'Aoso says. "Those elders who are still alive are passing on the culture and the language, and there is a merger there of the modern and contemporary and the traditional.
"The impact of social media in Western society is indiscriminate, and we have felt the impact of modern society and Western ways. However the fact that we still remain in our own sea country and our own islands - that connection still remains.
"Torres Strait Islanders are natural entrepreneurs - that's all part of growing up on an island. You've got to be able to negotiate, strategise and create alliances. We are natural-born diplomats."
The series will also serve as a record to preserve stories for future generations.
"It's never been about me; it's been about my people and the contribution we've made to this country," he says.
"We could only tell so much over three hours, so my hope is it stimulates and inspires future Torres Strait Islanders and aboriginal filmmakers to tell their own stories and their own history."
Blue Water Empire airs Tuesdays at 8.30pm on ABC-TV.