In a country where relations between police and Indigenous Australians have been tense and fraught with difficulty, both historically and recently, Our Law is a timely documentary showing an alternative path forward. Finalist for Best Australian Documentary at the upcoming Sydney Film Festival, and the first production from locals PiNK PEPPER, Our Law follows Australia’s first entirely Indigenous-only run police station in remote Warakurna, Western Australia. Watch two engaging Noongar police officers, Senior Sergeant Revis Ryder and Sergeant Wendy Kelly, as they demonstrate a new way of policing, one based on love, openness and a yearning to build rapport and relationships. Available on NITV from next Monday, June 22, it is highly recommended viewing, especially in the current climate of change. NATALIE GILES had a delightful chat with Sergeant Kelly about the documentary and what changes the Sergeant would like to see.
Thank you so much for being here and being so open and vulnerable in Our Law. I watched it last night and your courage in telling your story was phenomenally inspiring. How did you feel about filming it and showing yourself in such a raw way and sharing those parts of yourself?
Look, I was over the moon with it because I just hope that someone can see and relate to it. I want them to see it and go “I could do this, too” (making change and being a cop), you know? That’s my hope.
But you didn’t think about censoring any part of yourself for the screen? You shared some really big parts of your life in Our Law…
Well, the thing I live by is that I’ve never forgotten where I came from and I’m very aware every day that it would take much for me to get back to where I came from – living on the streets and being an alcoholic.
How long have you been sober for?
Twenty-eight years now. But it’s been really full on. I just had to stop. I needed to get away from where I was and when I tried to return home to my foster parents, they just couldn’t be around me on the drink, which I understand now. It’s fair to not want to be around any toxic person. We’ve reconciled now and we’re good. But in my 20s, I wasn’t great to be around. Friends didn’t want to be around someone who wasn’t very nice, which is fair, so my only choice was to go on the streets.
You discuss having been a child of the foster system in the documentary. Were your foster parents white? I really don’t want to overstep here…
Nah mate, you’re right. It’s a fair question and yes they were and still are white! [laughs]. Look, once I got through the rehab process we resumed contact and we’re all good now. Still my parents. Always will be.
But growing up, I had no connection to culture at all. None. I’ve got an uncle now who has been teaching me about where I come from because I had no idea. I’m in my 50s now and I’m still learning. I’m from down Collie way so I’m Noongar but it’s a journey. There’s a lot to learn!
And language is so much a part of First Nations culture. Watching you learn language as an Indigenous woman in the doco was beautiful. Can you tell me a bit about how that was for you spiritually and physically? How did it make you feel to connect with language as an English speaking Indigenous woman?
Very hard! Some of the words I could do, but we ended up getting hold of some books which helped us learn language and alphabets and pronunciations, so that helped a lot. The alphabet is very different, and there are ways of using your tongue differently on the back of your teeth and stuff and it’s bloody hard! It’s very different to the way we speak English and takes a lot of work, but it’s worth it. It’s bloody hard getting your tongue to work around certain sounds and stuff, but the reason I was doing it was so I could have some kind of communication with the local people. It was more than just language to me, I guess. I still can’t put a sentence together but I understand what they’re talking about, which is more important.
So how do you feel about white people learning their local language?
I think it would be a great step forward. I really do. For them, too, it would give them a leg up. Connect with your local culture. It’s so important, mate. Kids should be learning this in school. And learn about your local culture. It’s really fascinating stuff, and who doesn’t love learning?
You had such a unique way of connecting with local mob with love, kindness, care and compassion. Do you think that kind of loving policing is what we need now?
Oh, absolutely, but the test of it with me is that I treat someone the way I like to be treated. It’s so simple. And it’s such basic stuff. Talk to people how you want to be talked to. And expect that if you treat someone badly it’s going to come back that way too.
So given all the stuff that’s going on around the world right now, how are you feeling? It must be rough to be a cop right now, much less an Indigenous, woman cop…
You know, this is not me trying to side step it, but this is why it’s good that this program (Our Law) is coming out now, so hopefully somebody can see what’s going on there. That’s my dream, that somebody sees what’s going on out there at Warakurna and goes, “That works. Let’s try and do it that way.” I just hope others look at it and want to try to do it that way. It’s terrible what’s happening over there, and it’s affecting all of us but I’m just hoping that this documentary will touch people and the right way and help change minds. I know some people will think that the softly, softly approach won’t work but like I said, it’s just treating people how you want to be treated. Also, because of that rapport we had there, the local people responded to that. If we had to lock people up, it wasn’t even a huge drama because they knew us and knew we cared so much. But my experience out there was just awesome. And I’m very proud.
You should be!
But in terms of what’s going on at the moment, I just hope that people can look at what’s going on, make changes and move on from our past, or people just get stuck.
Were you aware at the time that it was a groundbreaking thing that you were doing?
Not really. And I don’t really remember when we realised it – might have been when Pinkie (producer Taryne Laffar) approached us? It’s been so great but the thing is that Revis (Senior Sergeant Revis Ryder) and I actually received the Australian Police Medal out there. I don’t think I’ve mentioned that before actually, but it’s not like that’s what we were working for out there. It’s an honour to receive it, but I think we never really talk about it because we were just there to do a job. It’s been a fantastic journey.
Is there anything you would like to say to our readers? How can we help move forward?
Well firstly, we should never put everyone in the same basket, in any part of our lives. We’re all different, we all have different stories. And for me, where I’m from is so miles apart from where I am now. You cannot judge people. You can’t put all police in the same basket either. Treat people the way you want to be treated. That’s all we need to do.