Movie avoids politics in favor of humor

Bran Nue Dae will throw off any preconceptions you might have about an Australian movie about Aborigines.

This is not a movie about the oppression of Aborigines endured under the white settlers. And it’s not about the injustice and discrimination they faced during several centuries of foreign domination. It’s not about the suffrage they finally earned in the 1960s.

Sing it loud · Director Rachel Perkins’ latest film features Geoffrey Rush as a strict Catholic priest trying to reign in Willie (Rocky McKenzie), an Aborigine teenager who only wants to return to his hometown. - Photo courtesy of Freestyle Releasing

No, this movie — which opens today at The Grove Pacific 14 Theatres — is a musical, and a garish, ridiculously comedic one at that.

Willie (Rocky McKenzie) is a soft-spoken, sensitive Aborigine teenager from Broome, sent by his religious mother to a mission school in Perth to become a Catholic priest. There is just one problem: Willie has no desire to become a priest. In fact, he spends most of his days pining for his hometown sweetheart, Rosie (Jessica Mauboy).

The catalyst comes when the ruler-brandishing priest, Father Benedictus (Geoffrey Rush), tries to discipline him for breaking one of the Ten Commandments, “Thou shalt not steal” (in this case, candy bars and soda pop). Willie runs away — but not before breaking into an outlandish, hilarious dance, singing, “There is nothing I would rather be than to be an Aborigine.”

The plot of this movie is straightforward and simple: It’s about a boy who just wants to go back home to Broome. Along the way, he meets several wacky characters: Uncle Tadpole (Ernie Dingo), a homeless alcoholic who claims he’s a relative by blood; Annie (Missy Higgins) and Slippery (Tom Budge), two Buddhist hippies on a “vision quest”; Betty (Magda Szubanski), a lascivious, hot bun-selling (wiggle eyebrows suggestively at “hot”) roadhouse owner; and Roxanne (Deborah Mailman), the scandalous drunkard who promises a “proper good time” to anyone.

If you’re looking for depth or an enlightening theme about cultural suppression and survival, you’ll be disappointed. The whole movie is, dare I say it, stupid. What else can you say about a movie with a scene dedicated to underage seduction beneath the Condom Tree? Or an outrageous ending in which everyone is related to everyone, regardless of race?

Nevertheless, it does throw in a few snarky and subtle messages — the image of Father Benedictus, his arms spread wide like a grand savior in front of quaking Aborigine students, suggests a parody of self-righteous white colonists and missionaries. Annie’s romanticism of traveling with two “exotic” Aborigines and her boyfriend Slippery’s guarded distrust toward them portray the ignorance and misconception most people have about Australia’s indigenous people.

Despite making the top-50 Australian films of all time at the local box office, Bran Nue Dae still faced criticism for juxtaposing lighthearted comedy with serious subject matter like Aboriginal Australia. Where are the tears? The outcries against racism? But director Rachel Perkins, who herself is part Aborigine, wanted to avoid precisely that.

In a Q&A session after the film’s screening, Perkins said that her main goal for this film was to reach out to a wide audience.

“I wanted to dispel the common assumption about Aboriginal films,” she said. “Many people don’t want to watch movies about Aborigines because they think it’s going to be depressing and make them feel guilty and bad. But I didn’t want that. I want my audience to go home happy.”

In fact, Perkins actually had to resist the temptation to add deeper touches to her film. Used to producing grittier films and documentaries, she struggled to keep things light and simple in this piece, hoping to showcase the fun-loving side of the people.

“[The truth is] we like singing, laughing and dancing,” Perkins said. “We don’t sit around talking about social justice.”

Finding Aboriginal actors who were willing to sing and dance in front of the camera proved tough, however. Perkins talked about feeling overwhelmed after watching a Chicago production and realizing that she would never find the time, money and talent for a musical as polished. Instead, she had to embrace the fact that her film would be “rougher and looser” on the edges.

Indeed, most of her cast, including the majority of lead characters, are first-time actors.  Mauboy, who plays Rosie, is known for her musical talents as the 2006 Australian Idol winner, but had never acted before. Neither had McKenzie, whose first question to Perkins was whether he would be on DVD as well.

As for the backup dancers, Perkins literally had to pick them off the streets.

In one particularly memorable scene when Willie makes his grand departure from his boarding school singing, “There is nothing I would rather be than to be an Aborigine,” the schoolboys hop into a tap dance behind him, arms and legs thrusting all over the place in different beats.

This group of unruly dancers is actually a bunch of high school students that Perkins bussed in and taught how to dance, sing and act — in one day. Such was the nature of limited resources available to Perkins in the making of her movie.

But in a strange twist, this amateur performance actually works in her favor. The coordination is so mismatched that the dancers seem to exude unadulterated joy that is both believable and charming.

By injecting humor and gaiety into an Aboriginal film, Perkins has managed to do what many film critics have criticized her for failing to do — she has nonchalantly opened up an easy acceptance toward people of all races and cultures.

In any case, you will be humming “I’d rather be an Aborigine” on your way home. But as you trail off with “and watch you take my precious land away,” you’ll realize that Bran Nue Dae is more than just a frolicking entertainment.