Bran Nue Dae is out on DVD in Australia, and our copy arrived a few days ago, about six weeks in advance of the US theatrical release scheduled for September 10, 2010. I’m happy to report that all the wonderful reviews of the film didn’t oversell it in the slightest (although I was disappointed that it turned out that I’d see almost the entirety of Magda Szubanski’s performance in the trailer!) But that aside, the film was a total delight, and in ways that I hadn’t anticipated.
Best of all I think was an amazing sense of community that emerged and grew stronger throughout the movie. This derives in part from the plot but even more so from the assembled cast and crew. Although early scenes featured Geoffrey Rush and newcomer Rocky McKenzie, I was often most aware of director Rachel Perkins’ presence. After seeing Radiance and marveling at First Australians, I wasn’t prepared for the light-hearted touch that she brings to Bran Nue Dae. The almost Disney-cartoon-like feel of the opening sequences in Broome, ablaze with popsicle colors and set in locations almost devoid of perspective, and the high-camp Gothic horror clichés of Willie’s return to the boarding school were totally unexpected; but they put me in the mood for what was to follow.
Quick now, here’s Jessica Mauboy … I never saw Australian Idol but I know her well from YouTube. And then Dan Sultan, crooning and rocking, his voice familiar from my iPod, his screen presence the classic blend of arrogance and insouciance that marks a great rock’n’roller. Here’s Stephen Baamba Albert as a pastor; I know him from The Circuit where his smile is kindlier but still not guileless. It’s like old home week. Deborah Mailman, yes, I remember her from Radiance and The Alice. And of course the feeling culminates with Ernie Dingo’s welcoming appearance at the campfire, homeless and singing of home. He wears his graybeard status well: an elder and an uncle, warmly comic. Bangarra’s Stephen Page created the choreography; it’s not award-winning stuff, and if his cast of schoolboys brings only so much talent to their numbers, they are exuberant. Meanwhile, the dance scenes in the Roebuck Inn are as much fun to watch as they would be to take part in.
And then there’s Broome itself, almost another character in the film. As Neil Murray famously said, there’s good light in Broome. The brilliant blues of the skies, the luminescent greens of the waters, the shining white sands, all are as delightful as the feeling you get from slipping once more into the seats at Sun Pictures Outdoor.
Of course, Bran Nue Dae is in many ways all about the music. Katharine Brisbane, in “The Future in Black and White: Aboriginality in Recent Australian Drama,” notes that “the story is as silly as any grand opera. What audiences respond to is the way the play invites them in to share the joy, the outlook and the resilient humour; through the music, which is a felicitous conflation of every style ever heard on a transistor radio in the bungalows of Broome.”
If it invites us (whitefellas) to feel like we can all be Aborigines for a day, can share that joy and community, it also reminds us of the ways in which we can not.
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.
There’s more to this film than the feel-good, we-can-all-be-Aborigines-for-a-day mood. Bran Nue Dae never completely shies away from a sense of dislocation, from homelessness, alcohol abuse, or the wrenching consequences of missionization. It does suggest that human decency and forgiveness (and a little bit of country, a little bit of rock ‘n’ roll) can go a long way towards healing. The film incarnates that tiny spirit of hope that is left at the bottom of Pandora’s box.
As much fun as the movie is, the subtext of Bran Nue Dae is not all joyful; the unleashed demons are still thick in the air. The condom tree is a lark, but one that is haunted by the devastation that AIDS was bringing to Aboriginal communities in the 1980s when author Jimmy Chi was assembling the story. There’s not a long distance between the boys in the boarding school and the children who were stolen off to mission schools elsewhere in Western Australia. (Midway between Radiance and Bran Nue Dae, Deborah Mailman starred as Mavis in Rabbit-Proof Fence; genial Stephen Albert attended the same Perth boarding school as Jimmy Chi.)
The darkness underlying the origins of Bran Nue Dae emerges in Tom Zubrycki’s documentary of the same name, released in 1991, when Chi’s script won a special award at the Western Australian Premier’s book awards a year after the play’s debut. “Everyone likes Aboriginal kids,” says Chi, “but they don’t like them when they grow up.” Perhaps because of Chi’s biting commentary on his life, the excerpted stage performances in the documentary from twenty years ago don’t have quite the same feel-good sensibility that Perkins imbues her film with.
Nonetheless, Zubrycki’s documentary has plenty of joy going for it after all these years, not the least of which is the chance to see a young Ernie Dingo play the role of Willie. His characterization is less innocent, less exuberant than McKenzie’s. To see Dingo as the young man in the documentary and as Uncle Tadpole in the new film is to be poignantly reminded of the importance of elders in Aboriginal culture, of the wisdom and humor that should be passed from generation to generation as the foundation of survival. Likewise, watching footage of Stephen Albert both in the stage production and alongside Jimmy Chi in the interviews provides an eerie sense of continuity, tradition, and the importance of this delightful vaudeville in the history of Aboriginal creative expression.
In some ways, the new film of Bran Nue Dae belongs as much to Rachel Perkins as it does to Chi. And that’s fine. Like Willie’s own story, it testifies to change and growth, to the hope that Aboriginal culture will impart its own values to mainstream Australia.