Serendipity has always seemed to play a large part in my experiences as a collector and blogger of Aboriginal art. At the opening of the exhibition Dreaming Their Way in Washington DC, I met Faye Ginsburg, who has written extensively on Aboriginal film and media. When I returned from my travels, I discovered that the fellow who’s converted dozens of PAL videotapes for me over the years had closed up shop. Of course, most everything’s released on DVD these days, and this approach was getting expensive, so I did what I should have done years ago, and bought an inexpensive multi-region code-free DVD player that lets me play Australian-made DVDs without the bother and expense of converting them. And finally, I discovered that the CAAMA shop was back online, and that Skinnyfish was carrying videos as well as music CDs. A new chapter in viewing videos was beginning.
So now I have a new stack of videos to watch and maybe write about. Most of them are not quite new releases, but I’m excited about catching up on some good films. Most Australian movies take a very long time to make it to America anyway: Ten Canoes is showing at festivals over here now, but I know I’m going to have to wait for DVD until I have a chance to see it. In the meantime, I can delight in the back catalogs of Rachel Perkins, Ivan Sen, and Warwick Thornton.
Thornton’s Green Bush was the first title on the stack, and I can only hope everything will turn out to be as wonderful as this short film. Less than half an hour in length, set entirely in a demountable trailer out in the bush, and featuring a small cast, most of whom have only the simplest of dialog to speak, it still manages to pack multiple layers of story into its short span. In that way, it immediately reminded me of–indeed it is–an Aboriginal work of art. There is a simple, public story, about a man doing his work and learning his place in a community, and beneath that narrative, the story of cultures in contact and confrontation, black and white, and traditional and modern.
David Page plays Kenny, the DJ for at a radio station modeled on 8KIN-FM, which CAAMA operated out of Alice Springs. “Green Bush” is the request show: families and friends send out songs to young men in jail. Kenny pedals up to the station one night, with a pot of stew and a loaf of bread strapped into the baby-carrier seat on his bike. He sets up his playlists and begins to announce the requests. A knock at the door turns out to be a tjilpi, an old man, played by Ted Egan Jangala, who comes in and asks for a cuppa tea. The old man takes a seat while Kenny goes off to play another song and boil the water. When Kenny returns with the tea in a mug imprinted with an upside down Aboriginal flag, two more tjilpi and an aunty are seated around table, asking for tea.
The scene is played humorously, and with warmth. Kenny is bemused, but accepting, though he doesn’t really know why these people are seeking shelter in the station. Things become chaotic quickly, as the tape cartridge player chews up tapes, more people appear around the table looking for tea…but all the cups have gone missing. In his frustration, Kenny sends everyone off to make their own tea, and then another knock comes at the door. Enter Rose, an older woman, holding her hand to a bloodied scalp. Kenny calls the ambulance, and when the tape player malfunctions again, he vents his anger by ripping it from its plugs and throwing it out onto the dirt in front of the trailer. As he stands at the door, breathily heavily in his anger and frustration, the tjilpi appears behind him, and says “Cuppa tea.” Kenny shouts “I said you could make your own cuppa tea” before turning around to realize that Tjilpi is holding out a steaming cuppa for Kenny to take. It’s a funny, wonderful, touching moment of peace, and an important lesson for Kenny as well.
Kenny heads for the back door and a quick smoko. He throws the butt out on the ground, and closes the door. But hearing a noise outside, he opens up again and finds a young man in a hoodie picking up the butt. Kenny quickly shuts the doors. The young fella outside bangs on the door, but Kenny refuses to open it again, refuses the shouted request for another cigarette. When the rapping recurs at the front door moments later, he shouts to the mob not to open the door, but it turns out to be the ambulance drivers, who take Rose away to have her stitched up.
As soon as she leaves, the rapping comes at the door again. It’s the young man in the hoodie, now revealed to be Rose’s son Stephen. Kenny’ accuses of having bashed his mother. Stephen is silent, and then demands another cigarette. Kenny loses his temper, and tells the fellow he’s not a man, but a boy: men take care of their families, they don’t hurt them. A few heated words, and Kenny is ready to throw a punch through the door, but a sharp command from the tjilpi stops him. Kenny insists that someone has to do something, but the old man counsels that sometimes it’s better to do nothing. When Kenny retorts “But I am a part of this!”, the old man simply says, “You’re a good part of it,” quietly acknowledging the service that Kenny provides in the safe harbor of the studio.
Kenny calms down, goes outside and retrieves the tape player he’d chucked out earlier, and begins to close down the station for the evening. The mob gets up and leaves while Kenny goes back on the air, apologizes to his listeners for not playing all their requests, and grimly muses, “There’s always tomorrow night. And the next. And the next. And when you think about it, you mob have been a captive audience. Just like me.” His last act before locking up is to tip the tjilpi’s mug upside down on the sink to drain, thus leaving it with the Aboriginal flag displayed right-side up. Outside with is bike, he lights a cigarette, and is then startled by the presence of the tjilpi sitting on the verandah. The old man mimes smoking, and Kenny reaches into his pack to give the man a smoke. They nod silently to one another and Kenny pedals off into the darkness, turning on his twin headlamps as he goes.
It’s a simple, economical story: the box for the DVD sums it up by saying that “DJ Kenny realizes that his job at an Aboriginal community radio station is about more than playing music.” The dialog is mostly a monolog for Kenny; the other characters’ lines are barely more than monosyllabic. But there is an amazing richness to the production, even though it takes place almost entirely in the three rooms of the trailer radio station. Much of this is achieved through superb set decoration. The door into the broadcast room is painted, like those at the Yuendumu school, with simple but vibrant ancestral designs, as is the exterior of the trailer itself. And the walls within are covered with an array of posters that document the last 25 years of Aboriginal history, community, and social action: music festivals, health initiatives, Land Rights marches, even a print of a painting by Trevor Nickolls showing an incarcerated and howling young man, which hangs in the background whenever Kenny is shown broadcasting his request songs to the inmates far away in their cells. The persistent and subtle humor that characterizes much of the film’s action (the running gag about a cuppa tea, for instance) finds voice even in the scene where Kenny first confronts young Stephen: on rear door where that scene takes place is large, prominent poster for Rachel Perkins’ 1998 film Radiance, for which director Warwick Thornton was the director of photography. (Thornton was also the host of the eponymous Green Bush radio show at CAAMA when he was in his late teens.)
The stereo and broadcasting equipment is old and out of date and half broken down, but as Kenny proves, not to be thrown away. In an interview published in Meanjin in March 2006, Thornton describes this as a deliberate choice as well*. “I didn’t want it to look like it had too much money. The radio station was a survival thing in its own right and it was only just living day to day, like Indigenous people in the community were. And surviving because of people like Kenny, who work for free. Volunteers.” The teacups are like that too. At first Kenny can find only the one that he gives to the tjilpi, but later the mob manages to come up with enough for all of them…a bit of magic that is never explained. But Kenny as one man can’t find enough to go around. When the mob takes on making the tea and dishing out the stew, though, there’s enough to share. That lone mug of Kenny’s, with its Aboriginal flag motif, carries more than its own weight as well, for when Kenny, in a final, tiny act of kitchen responsibility flips it over to drain, he sets the flag’s design aright for the moment, just as he has helped set things straight for these few people on this one night. The image echoes his closing message to his radio audience: there’s always tomorrow.
And then there’s the music itself. The soundtrack is critical to the film’s message, but brilliantly underplayed for the most part. It often seems to be used as background music–Kenny sets up a song on tape or vinyl, and the volume drops as he talks on the phone, works in the kitchen, or deals with a crisis. But every song helps to reinforce the message of the moment and I’ll select just a few highlights. The first tune sets up a central theme of the story–the troubles of young men–with the Tableland Drifters’ “Wasting Your Life.” Later, after calling the ambulance for Rose and venting his frustrations on the malfunctioning tape deck, he works off the rage with a tape of Gary Foley’s angry address on land rights and oppression at a 1982 concert; the Clash play “Armagideon Time” behind him. Then, to give himself some time to have a smoke and wait for the medics, he puts on an LP of the Mutitjulu community singing traditional songs. This brief, pivotal moment in the film, right before his confrontation with Rose’s basher son, swings from righteous anger to traditional strength. Its message in mirrored in one lovely little moment as Kenny, pacing from room to room, speaks along with Foley’s words; as he echoes the demand for land rights, one of the old aunties at the table gives the briefest warm and indulgent smile as Kenny strides past her. And at the very end, Kenny closes the show down with Frank Yamma’s call for a return to the old ways, “Make More Spear.”
Long time ago we used to have no beer and wine We used to have good fun in those olden days, oh yeah Let’s make more spear Don’t you know yourself? We are the people of the land We better hold on Stop hanging round in town Please go back to your home, oh yeah While you kept on drinking You be losing in the cell, oh yeah. Lets make more spear Don’t you know yourself? We are the people of the land We better hold on
Yamma’s simple lament for responsibility to self and community, sung over a solo acoustic guitar, echoes the simplicity, the difficulty, and the hope of the film itself as it plays out over the credits.
Green Bush is available from the online CAAMA shop in Alice Springs. At less than half the price you’d pay for a similar product from Film Australia, it’s a bargain.
*”Making whites obsolete: Lisa Stefanoff talks to Aboriginal film-maker Warwick Thornton,” Meanjin 65:1 (March 2006) p. 114ff.