How The First Inventors took Rob Collins on a journey of discovery

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Rob Collins, the Logie-winning star of Cleverman, The Wrong Girl and Total Control, has no hesitation naming his favourite moment in making powerful new documentary series The First Inventors. Up in his homeland, the Tiwi Islands, examining traditional marriage customs that modern genetics shows promote community health, he was inspired to don ritual body paint.

“We were dealing with kinship and stories and dance and I got to perform a [traditional] dance in front of my Uncle Bernard,” Collins says, on the line from Broken Hill where he’s shooting the second series of RFDS: Royal Flying Doctor Service. “Even though we were there with the film crew, there to do a job, it stands out as one of those beautiful moments that is part of the film-shoot, and I don’t know if I would’ve had that opportunity if it weren’t for the show.”

Rob Collins presents The First Inventors, screening on both NITV and Ten.Credit:

The First Inventors is an ambitious four-part series that was 65,000 years in the making, shining a light on pre-colonial Australia and the achievements of the world’s longest surviving culture. Sweeping aerial shots of natural beauty alternate with footage on the ground of Collins and a team of co-presenters examining traditional knowledge in the fields of navigation, astronomy, aquaculture and communications.

The first episode, for example, checks out recent archaeological research (using lasers) into the sophisticated eel traps set through rocky lava fields surrounding the Budj Bim volcano in south-western Victoria. Previously, it has been thought that the Chinese were the first to develop aquaculture systems, about 6000 years ago, but the Budj Bim findings may well substantially pre-date them.

Other episodes examine the use of songlines and message sticks thousands of years before the emergence of writing to preserve communal memories, and look at traditional herbal medicines that are showing huge promise in modern medicine. And there’s a segment on the boomerang, which utilised the aerofoil (the flattened teardrop cross-section shape used in aircraft wings) long before the Wright brothers employed it for the first powered flight. How long before? Archaeologists here display a boomerang dating back 10,000 years.

While NIDA graduate Collins is a familiar face in dramas such as Cleverman, the internationally acclaimed dystopian supernatural saga that invoked Dreamtime mythology, and The Wrong Girl, where he played a reluctant celebrity chef, Jack, opposite Jessica Marais, this is his first foray into presenting documentaries.

Collins with Ian Meadows, Jessica Marais and Hayley Magnus in The Wrong Girl.Credit: Ten

It wasn’t a project he could take on lightly. “I’ve done nothing like this before – I’m in the drama space in almost 100 per cent of my work – so to be in the documentary space was different,” he says. “And I felt a huge responsibility, by the very nature of the show, the fact that we were sharing stories of First Nations elders around the country that were closely linked to culture and a way of life – all those things were not lost on me. So, at least at the outset, I felt a great pressure to really get it right, and once we got the ball rolling and had the boots on the ground, going to these amazing places, the show took on a life of its own.”

Collins was mindful in the production that he was both an overarching voice but also a participant in the voyage of discovery. “It was part of the process to get that balance right and sound, yes, authoritative, but also I’m along for the ride in this journey as well. I’m presenting information, but I’m learning along with everyone else as I go through. The discoveries and journeys are happening through my eyes and the eyes of my fellow co-presenters.”

The series is a unique co-commission, between NITV and Network 10, which will screen simultaneously on both networks and be available to stream on both 10 Play and SBS On Demand.

Its director, Eualayai/Gamillaroi academic, advocate and filmmaker Larissa Behrendt, says The First Inventors′ spectacular landscapes are more than just pretty pictures: “They provide a complementary narrative to the story being told. The approach is to privilege First Nations voices and perspectives, to highlight where there is collaboration and to showcase best practice, where Indigenous knowledge is guiding the creation of new knowledges.

“I hope audiences see the strength, wisdom, resilience, humour and determination that I have seen in the people who have shared their insights and stories. At a time when the nation is looking at engaging in Voice, Treaty and Truth, the insights shared in this series will contribute to important conversations.”

Rob Collins in The First Inventors.Credit: NITV

Collins also sees the series sparking discussion. For example, he was challenged when he ventured out lighting fires with rangers on the Mimal Land Management area in Arnhem Land. “My layperson brain understands that fire means burning, it doesn’t mean management or regeneration or growth, it means destruction, in my mind, at least before I met the Mimal rangers.

“To see them use fire, to rehabilitate habitat, to take carbon load out of environments to manage those big bush fires that we’ve seen, that have devastated Australia recently, and to use carbon credits in that process to support the Mimal rangers as well, the whole system they’ve got out there is so mind-blowing to me.

“I got to use a drip torch, be on the ground and actually do the thing myself, and I was expecting the whole area to light up and engulf us. It was amazing to see this fire creep along the forest floor and not climb any branches, not to affect the top canopy of the forest at all, it kind of looked like magic, I can’t explain it in any other way.”

Equally remarkable was visiting the nearby land where cool burning had taken place just a few months earlier. “The landscape there looks so healthy, it looks so vibrant, there are animals everywhere, it’s abundant, things are fruiting. There was a real mindset shift for me as someone who knows nothing about fire management about the potential here. It was just incredible to see it work.”

This wealth of traditional knowledge has always been there, Collins notes, and while it wasn’t taught to his generation, he’s excited that the next generation will be far better informed, thanks in part to projects like The First Inventors.

And this knowledge, such as the cool burning, can be used to improve our future. “If this can manage the land in a sustainable eco-friendly way, then why aren’t we adopting it en masse?” he asks. “The science is telling us the answer, traditional knowledge is telling us the answer, why can’t we listen?”

The First Inventors screens on Channel 10 and NITV on Thursday (June 15), 8.30pm, and is available on SBS On Demand and 10 Play.

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