Bran Nue Dae

Starring Rocky McKenzie, Jessica Mauboy, Geoffrey Rush, Ernie Dingo, Missy Higgins,Tom Budge, Dan Sultan, Magda Szubanski, Deborah Mailman, Ningali Lawford-Wolf. Directed by Rachel Perkins.
Rated PG (medium level coarse language). 85 minutes.

Bran Nue Dae has been a long time coming. What began life as songs written by Aboriginal musicians about growing up black in White Australia during the 1960s, morphed later into a popular stage musical that toured Australia in the 1990s, delighting audiences with its boisterous energy and humour.

Now Bran Nue Dae has been adapted for the screen by director Rachel Perkins (Radiance, One Night the Moon), Reg Cribb, Johnny Chi and other original members of the band Kuckles (comprising Patrick Duttoo Bin Amat, Gary Gower, Michael Manolis Mavromatis, and Stephen Pigram), whose early experiences in Broome in the far north of Western Australia, inspired the songs.

As a consequence, those who missed the stage show will be surprised and delighted at the deft way Bran Nue Dae mixes political irony and satire with a love story and zany optimism.

Bran Nue Day is set in Broome in 1969, where young Willy (Rocky McKenzie), who attends a Catholic mission school in Perth, is back home briefly, doing his best to fit in and enjoy life with his friends and other members of his generally carefree community.

Willy is in love with Rosie (Jessica Mauboy), with whom he grew up, but Rosie has caught the eye of the local Lothario Lester (Dan Sultan), who by his good looks and standing in the community which gathers at the Roebuck Bay Hotel, has turned Rosie’s head.

To complicate Wally’s sense of abandonment by Rosie, his mother Theresa (Ningali Lawford-Wolf) wants Wally to become a priest, and to this end she sends him back to the mission school, where to his chagrin, Willy, by virtue of his compliant behaviour, is singled out by the school principal Father Benedictus (Geoffrey Rush), as the Aborigine most likely to succeed (i.e. enter the priesthood after graduation).

When Willy along with others raids the tuck-shop at night, Benedictus is enraged, and becomes more so when his tactic of forcing a confession from the culprits through moral blackmail, results in Wally confessing that he is one of them.

Wally avoids punishment by running away. But too ashamed to return to Broome, he spends the night under a Perth bridge with a group of Aboriginal vagrants, one of whom (Ernie Dingo), identifies himself as Wally’s uncle ‘Tadpole’.

Although penniless, Uncle ‘Tadpole’ immediately announces his (ulterior) intention of accompanying Wally back to his mother in Broome, and chased unknowingly by Father Benedictus in his yellow car, Uncle Tadpole and Wally inveigle a ride to Broome with two hippies, Annie (‘Missy’ Higgins) and Slippery (Tom Budge), in their (originally Point Hedland bound) flower-painted van.

From hereon Bran Nue Dae becomes (mostly) a rollicking fast-paced, at times slap-stick musical comedy, more in the mould of Chaplin and the Keystone Cops than conventional road movies.

Yet despite the surface jollity of Aboriginal music Broome-style, if one listens closely, ironically defiant lyrics are embedded in the vibrancy of the music that relate starkly to the demeaning treatment endured by most Aborigines during 200-odd years of White Settlement (‘Nothing I would rather be, Than to be an Aborigine…’).

And there is one scene, all the more powerful because it seems to creep by stealth from beneath the film’s at times banal surface, which is heart-stopping in its tragic visual beauty: that when Willy asleep in jail in Uncle Tadpole’s arms, is visited by the past, and dreams that he is being hanged.

Just as layered and meaningful are the portraits of some of the characters whose behaviour, if not for the three-dimensionality of their depiction (Deborah Mailman as Roxanne, Ernie Dingo as ‘Tadpole’) and the placing of these characters in a context that makes sense of their actions, could be interpreted as simply  stereotypical.

This applies too to the stereotyping of the Catholic clergy as represented by the pompous and preposterous Father Benedictus (as played by Rush), which is offset by the film’s cathartic final scene, which pricks the balloon of prejudice and exclusivity by showing that as human beings we are all related, irrespective of class, nationality or race.

In several ways, Bran Nue Dae stands at the opposite end of the spectrum to Samson and Delilah. But seen as twin portraits of where Aboriginal cinema is heading and where it has come from, Bran Nue Dae is a film to be proud of and to enjoy.

Ronin Films  Out February 14

Mrs Jan Epstein is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

 


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