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Bran Nue Dae Bran Nue Dae
image courtesy Roadshow

When I was a kid in the 50s, comedies and musicals often featured opening credits with cartoon figures or animations. Perkins immediately establishes her film’s retro tone—in bright tropical skies an animated black angel knocks a white one out of place. Before we know it we’re immersed in a world of iconic figures—young lovers, an anxious parent, a cruel authority figure, an avuncular helper and some could-be-baddies—who all sing and dance at the drop of a hat. With its fusion of romantic comedy, coming of age and road movie genres, brisk changes of location, if lovingly fixated on Broome, and broad characterisations, the film sustains a sense of immediacy, escalating furiously towards the end when the lovers are reunited and tangles of paternity are unravelled.

Teenage Willie (Rocky McKenzie), who lives in genteel poverty with his Christian mum, Theresa (Ningali Lawford Wolf), is in love with Rosie (Mauboy) who sings in the church choir. She’s likewise attracted to him, but Willie, variously thwarted, naive and doomed to a long absence at a distant school, can’t realise the relationship. Worse, he’s punched out by the handsome singer from the pub, Lester (Dan Sultan), who becomes Rosie’s mentor and potential lover (Willie’s fear but not at all Rosie’s reality). Willie returns to school and, at a low emotional ebb, joins in stealing from the tuck shop for which he is racially denigrated by Father Benedictus (Geoffrey Rush) and is about to be struck with the priest’s mighty stick. He revolts, uniting the all black school in a round of “There’s nothing I would rather be, than to be an Aborigine” before hitting the road, meeting the avuncular Tadpole (Ernie Dingo) and journeying back to Broome, family and love.

The plot conventions of Bran Nue Dae are broadly western, but there are familiar aspects to be found in the otherwise alien world of Ten Canoes and, after all, Perkins’ film is principally set in Broome which, as portrayed in Marrugeku’s performance work Burning Daylight [RT94], is a culturally complex town—western, eastern, Aboriginal. The film’s dynamics are driven by cultural dichotomies. In the opening scenes, the country music-cum-rock’n’roll of the pub where Indigenous young people gather is juxtaposed with gospel-ish singing in church and, later, mass schoolboy defiance is realised as a mock tap dancing routine inspired by the films of the period.

What makes the film particularly interesting is that the world it creates, in 1969, is principally an Aboriginal one within which black and white cultural clashes are played out (other cultural aspects of Broome are kept low key). The main exceptions are Geoffrey Rush’s headmaster-priest, the German-accented Father Benedictus, and a young German tourist, Slippery (Tom Budge), but in the end even they find themselves related to an Aboriginal family. Slippery’s girlfriend, Annie (Missy Higgins), feels bad that she’s the only one missing out.

Bran Nue Dae Bran Nue Dae
image courtesy Roadshow
The clash of faith is not between white and black or Rush and Willie (that’s about racism) but between the church congregation (with their Aboriginal priest) and the pub-goers, with alcohol consumption central to the tension. Even in the outdoor cinema, as in the pub, the focus is not on the racial divide, but on Willie’s failure to connect with Rosie. As rain thunders down he sits alone watching himself on the cinema screen being farewelled by his mother as he catches the bus south to school. This fantasy/reality tension is played out in Willie’s jealous imaginings of Rosie and Lester together, in a celebratory dormitory dance with Rosie amidst a sea of candles and boys singing into their pillows, and, more seriously, as an Aboriginal ritual in the film’s darkest moment.

The dichotomies of the alcohol theme are dealt with breezily but are not so easily accommodated. In the early scenes, we see drunks stagger out of the pub and vomit, while inside the dancing is joyous, the mood safe. After Willie has run away from school, he mixes with an amiable bunch of drinkers beneath a bridge. One of them, Tadpole, quickly takes advantage of the boy, using his money for drink, but, guilt getting the better of him, he fakes being hit by a van belonging to two would-be hippies (Budge and Higgins) and demands compensatory passage to Broome. On the way, Willie’s virginity is drunkenly surrendered beneath The Condom Tree to another benign, livewire alcoholic (Deborah Mailman) and the film’s climax evolves out of the aforementioned clash when the church congregation rallies in protest outside the pub.

Embodying these tensions and hovering between them is the avuncular Tadpole, devious but with a conscience, culturally ignorant (muddling kinship connections) and exploitative (playing at being an elder). But he’s a skilled bush mechanic (stripping the skin of a snake to replace a broken engine belt, invoking David Batty’s Bush Mechanics TV series, 2001, from a concept by Francis Jupurrula Kelly), a fighter (rescuing Willie from Mailman’s jealous partner) and a man with hints of cultural depth.

Traditional Indigenous ritual finds only one defined moment in the film and it’s not an easy one to assimilate given the film’s otherwise jovial mood. On being locked in a cell by police for the night, Willie is anxious, knowing cells are places where Aboriginal people die. There he dreams a dance of elders led by Tadpole in which the boy participates and flies up, hovering over the dancers as their chains fall away in silvery light. In the morning Willie is nonplussed by his memory of the experience, but Tadpole’s knowing look suggests that perhaps the boy has made contact with his culture at some deep level. Like the Trickster figure who appears in the tales of many cultures, Tadpole mercurially bridges opposing realities, if here on his own journey to responsibility and possible redemption. Most of this is kept strictly within the film’s comic framework: when he and Willie are deserted by Slippery and Annie, Tadpole grabs any old bone and points it at the disappearing Kombi, exploding its tyres. Horrified at this unwanted power, he throws the bone to Willie who frantically flings it away.

Ernie Dingo, 'Missy' Higgins, Bran Nue Dae Ernie Dingo, 'Missy' Higgins, Bran Nue Dae
image courtesy Roadshow
As often the case with romantic comedy, the lovers Willie and Rosie are innocents, rarely agents of their fate, but the complexities of the world constellate around them. Willie has no ambition but to live in Broome, to fish, to be with his family and Rosie. But the overriding sense of the film, again true to comedy, is not of individual drama so much as community and regeneration—here a recognition not just of new love but of parenting forgotten or squandered and now recovered, within and across cultures. Slippery is Father Benedictus’ son by Theresa, Tadpole is Willie’s father, Slippery and Willie are brothers and, for a celebratory big musical finale, everyone is welcomed into the greater Aboriginal community.

This is a feel-good fantasy world where harmony can be achieved, but the drunks will still drink and the church will be both a comfort and a cross to bear and traditional culture remains a deep but fragile certainty. The film makes all of this clear, if with a light touch. Bran Nue Dae offers a brand new day of opportunity and hope. Whether or not you can accept the film’s cheery vision will depend on your willingness to embrace its idealised history and surrender to its humour and music. It’s very much a faithful realisation by Rachel Perkins of Jimmy Chi’s vision. Chi apparently had considerable creative control over the making of the film from his original stage play. If it feels at times dated or out of synch with what we now know of Aboriginal culture, that’s because it presents 1969 as a more naive time and delivers it in a vehicle often of calculated innocence, the movie musical.

As a contribution to this movie musical genre, the film has its strengths and weaknesses: the music is beautifully sung and played, if without the embracing rawness of the stage version, and the dancing is well crafted and enticing (Stephen Page) but edited videoclip- style so that a sense of choreographic totality goes missing. The dancing in the early pub scene is particularly vibrant and distinctive, but glimpsed in fragments. However, Rosie’s immersion in the movement becomes ours as Andrew Lesnie’s camera spins from her point of view. A brief appearance by the Elcho Island Chooky Dancers doing their Zorba the Greek dance on the back of a truck is also irritatingly fragmented.

Bran Nue Dae Bran Nue Dae
image courtesy Roadshow
I pretty much surrended to Bran Nue Dae’s charms, if coming away from it with plenty of concerns. I was struck by the film’s affinity with Richard Frankland’s Stone Bros (RT92), with its similar mix of broad humour, idealisation and touches of seriousness woven into the comic action. What’s important in both films is the evocation of self-contained Aboriginal worlds where issues are worked through with satirical acuity and self-deprecating humour. They might seem politically tame films next to the harsher realities of, say, Radiance, Beyond Clouds and Samson and Delilah, but they have their own complexities. Each time I read a review of Bran Nue Dae that complains of a thin plot line I’m mindful of the many generations of picaresque novels and road movie films that propel us moment to unanticipated moment through revealing landscapes and encounters. Despite its uneven comedy, the occasional limits of its movie musical format and constrained political sensibility, Bran Nue Dae is neither simple nor simplistic. It’s a forceful reminder too, in grim times, of the power of Aboriginal humour, recalling not least the earlier careers of the likes of Ernie Dingo, Ningali Lawford Wolf and Leah Purcell. The film’s humour was certainly not lost on the audience I shared the film with in its brisk and concise 85 minutes of idiosyncratic cultural celebration.

Bran Nue Dae, from the stage musical by Jimmy Chi, director Rachel Perkins, screenwriters Reg Cribb, Rachel Perkins, Jimmy Chi, director of photography Andrew Lesnie, editor Rochelle Oshlack, production designer Felicity Abbott, costume design Margot Wilson, music Cezary Skubiszewski, choreography Stephen Page, Robyn Kershaw Productions, Mayfan Films, 85 mins. Distribution Roadshow Entertainment, DVD/Blu-ray release on May 20, 2010

Originally published in the March 1, 2010 online edition.

RealTime issue #96 April-May 2010 pg. 20

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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