Bran Nue Dae

Musical-loathing Duncan Wu is won over by the bright-hued cheek of an Aboriginal song and dance

October 14, 2010

Bran Nue Dae

Directed by Rachel Perkins

Now on limited release in the US

Starring Geoffrey Rush, Rocky McKenzie and Jessica Mauboy

Today, everyone's an Aborigine!": an interesting sentiment with which to conclude a musical. I don't normally go to musicals as I detest their bogus sentimentality and enforced jollification - like being stuck on an endless tour of Disneyland. But Bran Nue Dae, directed by Rachel Perkins, is an exception to all that. Set in 1969, it concerns an Aboriginal teenager, Willie, who is so badly abused by Father Benedictus, the sadistic Catholic priest who is his teacher, that he runs away from school. "You are a stain on the celebration of life! An abomination in the eye of God!" Benedictus tells him.

It sounds almost Dickensian, until, as Willie confronts Benedictus for the last time before leaving, he sings the following lyric:

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

Willie and the other children continue:

Now you may think I'm cheeky

But I'd be satisfied

To rebuild your convict ships

And sail you on the tide

The entire enterprise is founded on cheek; Bran Nue Dae aims to prick the bubble of complacency that characterised the assumptions of middle-class Australians in the 1960s about race. It does this by placing an Aborigine at the centre of the film: his perceptions, comments and experiences shape its narrative. As in the real Australia of that period, Aborigines are shown to be impoverished, alcoholic, unemployed and often imprisoned, while positions of authority are occupied entirely by whites.

But this isn't social realism. It is a comedy of absurd coincidence, surprise revelation and gross improbability - like a Shakespeare play gone haywire. Even the weirdly symbolic condom tree is like something out of the Forest of Arden. Its Aboriginal characters are resourceful, cunning and experts at the game of survival: "You can either be a sinner or you can starve," as one of them puts it.

Such lessons mark it as a coming-of-age story for Willie, who during the course of the film must learn how to survive in a world in which his people have been displaced and oppressed. It manages at the same time to be deeply subversive of the society it depicts, partly by satirising authority figures such as Father Benedictus (brilliantly portrayed by Geoffrey Rush), the priest who bribes informants by giving them chocolate bars, and who in the last moments of the film arrives at the realisation that, as he puts it, "I am...an Aborigine!"

It's almost impossible not to discuss this film without making it sound worthy, although nothing could be further from the reality. It's an energetic, colourful, zany film, made with a sly affection for the culture it purports to mock (Rolf Harris plays a significant role). It is also rough round the edges. No one could pretend that the music is anything other than serviceable, or that the lip-synching is as tight as it ought to be.

Yet it is an engaging movie for those very reasons. It may lack the glossiness of the multiplex blockbusters, but is a good deal more substantial. Full of song, dance, jokes and silliness, it appears on the surface to be a frivolity while in fact it exposes the patent injustice of recent Australian history. Such a film is bound to have more resonance Down Under, and that may be why it has done better there than elsewhere. Even though it does not yet have a UK release date, Bran Nue Dae demands to be shown in Britain as well, not least as a lesson in how serious issues can be smuggled into a cinematic confection.

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