For all American moviegoers know, Australia’s Aborigines spend the bulk of their free time wandering around the Outback questing visions, scrawling spiritual graffiti on cliffs and communing with ghosts of their ancestors. We learned this from David Gulpilil’s “Black Boy,” in Walkabout, his Neville Bell, in Crocodile Dundee, and most of the other characters he’s played in his illustrative 40-year career.
In such films as The Final Wave and Rabbit-Proof Fence, Gulpilil helped introduce outsiders, as well, to Australia’s profoundly racist history and many Aborigines’ inability to assimilate. More recently, in Rolf de Heer’s brilliant story-within-a-story, Ten Canoes, Gulpilil narrated a epic tale passed down through 1,000 years of Yolngu oral history.
Although Gulpilil is as celebrated for his indigenous dancing as for his acting, he doesn’t appear in Rachel Perkins’ joyous musical of Aboriginal life, Bran Nue Dae, opening in limited release on Friday. And that’s significant, how, you ask.
Gulpilil’s absence speaks volumes about how far the Australian cinema has come since the days when every depiction of its native people was crafted to elicit tears of sadness and rage, or celebrate their ancient mysteries. Perkins’ adaptation of Jimmy Chi’s immensely popular Bran Nue Dae uses an actual, potentially ruinous event in the life of the playwright as a jumping off point for music, dance, comedy and a celebration of life on the turquoise coast, not the arid Outback.
“I remember watching ‘Walkabout’ when I was 15 or so,” recalls Perkins, whose father was an Arrernte/Kalkadoon from the Central Desert, near Alice Springs, and whose mother is an Australian of German background. “I loved it, even though nothing in it matched my experience growing up in Canberra. ‘Bran Nue Dae’ breaks from tradition in that it’s not about a problem or social issues, nor does it romanticize these ‘noble savages.’
“It’s about Aboriginal people, from Broome, telling jokes and acting normal.”
It took a long time before Hollywood filmmakers could do the same with stories about minorities here. Tyler Perry’s made a fortune depicting African-Americans in what might be considered day-to-day, non-topical situations, while Spike Lee, arguably a far better director, has struggled to meet the commercial expectations of studio executives. For far too many years, films targeted at Hispanic audiences focused on gang activity and illegal immigration. Those issues haven’t gone away, certainly, but filmmakers have yet to achieve the same success on the big screen as the producers of telenovelas have found on television.
Socially realistic comedies and dramas about the indigenous people of American and Canada are even more difficult to find. If anything, Hollywood has found it easier to correct its own record of misinformation, racial stereotyping and demonizing of 18th and 19th Century Indians, than to seek out small gems, such as Pow-Wow Highway and Smoke Signals. It’s even stumbled in its attempts to build a market for films based on the best-selling mysteries of Navajo author Tony Hillerman.
Before arriving in Los Angeles to promote Bran Nue Dae, Perkins was in Santa Fe for a special screening and Q&A held to coincide with both the annual Indian Market and Native Cinema Showcase. Perkins and other Aboriginal artists may have been successful in exploiting government programs to build creative networks in Australia, but their North American peers still have a long way to go. Here, of course, box-office realities trump social responsibility every day of the week.
Ironically, to realize her dream, Perkins was required to move from south-eastern Canberra to the place her father left to begin his journey. Located 1,200 dusty miles from the Australian capital, Alice Springs provided the 18-year-old with an opportunity to cut her teeth at the Aboriginal-owned TV station, Imparja. In 1991, she moved to Sydney and a job at SBS Television as executive producer of the Aboriginal Television Unit, for which she produced and directed documentaries and the children’s series, Manyu Wanna.
Two years later, Perkins established her own production company, Blackfella Films, which focuses on work by indigenous people around the world. It also has produced movies and installation projects for corporate clients and festivals. In 1995, she was awarded the first indigenous scholarship to study producing at the Australian Film, Television and Radio School.
It’s taken nearly 20 years for Bran Nue Dae to make the leap from the stage to the movies. The semi-autobiographical musical was written by Broome native Jimmy Chi and his band Kuckles, based on their own experiences. Chi’s broad Aboriginal/Asian ancestry reflects the ethnic diversity of the pearling and tourism town, which is on the far northwestern corner of Australia.
Set in the late 1960s, it tells the story of a likeable young teenager from Broome named Willie (Rocky McKenzie), who agrees to move to faraway Perth to fulfill his mother’s dream of him becoming a priest. Willie’s never met his father and has only recently become interested enough in girls to consider having a girlfriend, so the separation isn’t as traumatic as it might have been for other boys his age. Still, Broome’s the kind of place that inspires nostalgia in its expatriates. (Charles Perkins followed a similar path in the 1950s, after his mother encouraged him to attend St. Francis College for Aboriginal Boys – at the time, one of the few places offering career paths for indigenous youth — which was 800 miles to the south. He didn’t meet his father until much later in his life, either.)
Once at the heavily regimented school, Willie, came under the protective gaze of the quirky Father Benedictus (Geoffrey Rush). The otherwise upstanding lad would disappoint the priest by acknowledging his participation in a midnight raid on the kitchen’s pop- and candy-filled refrigerator.
It was a relatively minor offense, but Benedictus was an obsessive counter of lost objects. Instead of merely smacking Willie’s knuckles and being done with it, though, Benedictus uses the occasion of a student assembly to rant about how grateful the Aborigine boys should be for their great opportunity not only to serve the Lord, but also to more easily assimilate into the white population.
The incident does however serve to kick-start the musical half of the story. After taking Benedictus’ punishment like a champ, Willie leads the student body in song, “There’s nothing I would rather be/Than to be an Aborigine/and watch you take my precious land away/For nothing gives me greater joy/than to watch you fill each girl and boy/with superficial existential shit.”
As harsh as the lyrics sound, the effect is quite the opposite. With the students – amateurs, mostly – gyrating wildly in the aisles, the production number is equal parts Starstruck, Strictly Ballroom and The Blues Brothers.
“The ‘Aborigine’ number is almost a parody of the musical form,” Perkins allows. “We cast the kids in one day, held a rehearsal and got them dressed. We didn’t want the number to be slick … poke fun at what the priest was saying.
“People don’t seem to like musicals much these days, but the genre can produce surprises. We tried to integrate some familiar songs to the originals … but it just isn’t normal for people to break into song like that.”
At the time the musical was set, the Australian government was still promoting forced assimilation over integration, usually through marriage, while denying or limiting full-blooded Aborigines such basic rights as access to public education, raising their own children, freedom of movement, marrying without permission, eating in restaurants, entering a pub, swimming in a public pool or having the right to vote. Unlike sheep, their numbers weren’t included in the census until 1968. Charles Perkins, the first Aborigine to graduate from an Australian university, was a highly visible crusader for lifting such restrictions and returning native lands to indigenous people.
The priest’s diatribe notwithstanding, Bran Nue Dae is a story about reconciliation, self-discovery and love.
“It reminds us that we’re all inherently the same,” said the 40-year-old Perkins. “We all have problems and frailties, and we all can be accepted and forgiven. We didn’t want to crucify anyone, including the church.”
After the assembly-hall scene, Willie decides to risk his mother’s disappointment by beating a 1,500-mile path to Broome. Almost penniless, however, the boy needed some help.
He found it in a hobo camp, where similarly broke Aboriginal elders passed the bottle around, swapped lies and sang songs. One of old-timers was from Broome and longed to return home while he was stay capable of making the trip. The geezer, Uncle Tadpole (Ernie Dingo), scams Willie out of his pocket change, but cons the owners of a VW van into giving them a ride after faking an accident.
The hippie couple is on a quasi-mystical quest of their own, so it’s easy for Uncle Tadpole to fill their heads with guilt and quaint Aboriginal superstitions. Before long, Willie recognizes something of himself in the old prankster and becomes a co-conspirator.
A wrong turn gives Perkins an opportunity to introduce other Aussie eccentrics, some of whom join the pilgrimage to Broome, where Willie hopes the apple of his eye, Rosie, will see him in more macho light and forgive an earlier dating faux pas. Coincidentally, in the interim, the young woman (Australian Idol -winner Jessica Mauboy) has given up gospel and joined a rock band.
Bran Nue Dae benefits mightily from being shot on locations true to Chi’s experience, instead of the Australian film industry’s equivalent of Vancouver or Toronto. In addition to Broome’s pristine waters, the red sand and oases of the coastal desert offer several visual treats.
“The scene in which Rosie thinks she’s being stood up by Willie was set in Broome’s outdoor cinema, the oldest such theater in the world,” Perkins said. “That’s where Jimmy Chi watched his first Hollywood movies and we had the world premiere. People from all over were drawn to Broome, because it was the second largest producer of pearls.
“Spiritually, Catholic and Aboriginal traditions co-existed well, and the blend of nationalities resulted in a gorgeous mix of children.”
Looking ahead, Perkins has another movie and mini-series on the drawing boarding, as well as other projects associated with Blackfella. In the unlikely case she runs out of ideas, she might consider doing a biopic of her father, who, in addition to being the country’s leading advocate for civil rights, played soccer well enough to have been invited to try out for Manchester United and be inducted into Australia’s football hall of fame.
She’s already collaborated on a documentary about the Freedom Rides he led into territory as hostile to reform as any in the United States during the same period, but that’s only part of her family’s history. Charles Perkins remained a firebrand and effective fighter for Aboriginal causes until his death in 2000. His commitment prompted the National Trust of Australia to name him one of the country’s 100 Living National Treasures.
It’s a distinction both Perkins may someday share.