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Bran Nue Dae

January 29, 2010
Broome

The gorgeous colours of Broome

You could hardly get two more different films than Warwick Thornton’s Samson and Delilah and Rachel Perkins’ Bran Nue Dae. Both are directed by indigenous Australians and both address indigenous Australian issues but, wow, how differently they do it. While Samson and Delilah is spare and almost without dialogue, Bran Nue Dae is exuberant and highly verbal. Of course it is, it’s a musical set in 1969.

There’s nothing I would rather be
Than to be an Aborigine
and watch you take my precious land away.

You have to see it to fully appreciate the contrast between the joyful (in fact cliched-musical-style) presentation of this song and the sting in its tail. Bran Nue Dae started life as a set of songs written by indigenous Australian musicians about growing up in Broome in the 1960s. Some time later, these musically eclectic songs were transformed into a musical that was a hit at the Festival of Perth in 1990. Rachel Perkins has apparently long wanted to adapt it for film. I have not seen the original play and so cannot comment on how the film compares with the original. Others can do that if they wish: I’m not always convinced that it is a worthwhile exercise to compare originals and their adaptations. Judge each work on its own terms is, I think, a better policy.

Briefly, the plot. Willy’s devout mother has scrimped and saved so he can go to boarding school in Perth and train to be a priest, but Willy (newcomer Rocky McKenzie) has met a girl (Jessica Mauboy), in his hometown of Broome, and is not so sure that priesthood is what he wants. Following conflict with the school’s priest (Geoffrey Rush), he heads back home from Perth, more or less under the wing of newly met Uncle Tadpole (Ernie Sigley). They obtain a ride with a hippie couple (Missy Higgins and Tom Budge), and the rest as they say is …. The encouraging thing about the film is that it celebrates our similarities (this is, after all, a coming-of-age story) while at the same time recognising significant differences (specifically the cultural dislocation experienced by indigenous people).

Comedy always seems to me to be a little tricky to review. There is such a fine line between being funny and being cringe-making. This film has the odd awkward or cringe-making moment – it verges on vaudeville and has its share of stereotypical if not downright cliched scenes. But these moments are few – and in fact they are, I’m sure, self-consciously there. Perkins wants us to make the connections between traditional musical comedy and her movie so that we can see its subversiveness – and it is subtly (or not so subtly) subversive. I found it genuinely funny – but with enough satire and moments of pathos (such as the references to deaths in custody) – that I got the message as well.

This film is at the other end of the black-white dialogue in Australia from Samson and Delilah. It is also starkly different from Rachel Perkins’ other musical (but definitely not comedy) film, One night the moon, which deals tragically with the refusal to engage in dialogue. It too is a spare film. These are both great must-see films, but it is also good to see humour being used in this important but mostly oh-so earnestly explored area.

And so, if you like to have a laugh – but with a little bite in it – go see Bran Nue Dae.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 5, 2010 23:06

    Its good to see reviews of Australian films – the only one I remember is Rabbit Proof Fence, which was a little harrowing for me – I prefer comedies!

    • February 5, 2010 23:35

      Well, you could very well enjoy this, depending on how you like your comedy. Have you seen In the loop? I’m keen to see it but fear it may disappear before I get to it.

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