In the Summer of 1969 a young man is filled with the life of the idyllic old pearling port Broome - fishing, hanging out with his mates and his girl. However his mother returns him to the religious mission for further schooling. After being punished for an act of youthful rebellion, he runs away from the mission on a journey that ultimately leads him back home.
Melbourne International Film Festival: It is turning into a landmark year for indigenous cinema in Australia. In the wake of Warwick Thornton’s Samson & Delilah, a powerfully intimate drama, comes Rachel Perkins’ Bran Nue Dae. The two films could not be more diametrically opposed – respectively the lacerating, still to the point of silence contemporary character piece and the effervescent period musical – but together they provide a beachhead for Aboriginal filmmakers with white Australian audiences while recharging the stocks of our national screen profile.
The two movies are also a reminder that there’s no one set way to address an issue. If Samson & Delilah is an uncompromising document of the routine injustice and substandard living conditions for Australia’s indigenous population, then Bran Nue Dae is a celebration of surviving as a separate underclass. Adapted by Perkins and playwright Reg Cribb (Last Train to Freo) from the 1989 musical by Jimmy Chi, Bran Nue Dae has a daffy, garish energy that’s reflected in brisk pacing and a suite of suitably up-tempo tunes.
Aboriginals only won the right to vote after a national referendum in 1967, but the 1969 version of Broome that opens the movie looks like a paradise, especially with the warm colours and sun drenched landscapes composed by cinematographer Andrew Lesnie (Babe, The Lord of the Rings trilogy). In such surroundings it’s not surprising that the shy Willie (Rocky McKenzie) is distracted from the spiritual by the physical. The teenager’s mother wants him to study in Perth and become a Catholic priest, but he’s besotted with Rosie (former Australian Idol runner-up Jessica Mauboy), an aspiring singer who has also caught the eye of local band leader Lester (Dan Sultan).
Willie’s return to study in the south doesn’t last long. At the religious school presided over by the compelling if overly stern Father Benedictus (Geoffrey Rush), he draws the line at the domineering punishment handed out to classmates after an infringement. It’s emblematic of the movie’s refusal to examine racial issues on dried ideological terms: Willie meets the priest’s condemnatory remarks about his people by launching into 'I’d Rather be an Aborigine", a buoyant show tune that mocks the misuse white Australia has made of Aboriginal lands.
Like the protagonists of Samson & Delilah, Willie finds himself under a bridge, but instead of a final stop it’s the start of a journey, when the garrulous group of cheap plonk drinkers reveals his uncle Tadpole (Ernie Dingo), who promises to take his nephew home even if he has to be reminded the next day due to a hangover. Driven by an uptight German hippie (Tom Budge) and his spiritually wide-eyed girlfriend (Missy Higgins), the pair travels north, pursued by Benedictus, in an unlikely road movie where community and family trump the usual endemic indigenous issues of alcohol abuse and unemployment.
Visually Perkins is not a natural fit for this material. Her 1998 feature, Radiance, suggested a more contemplative, stately style, but here she enthusiastically takes to the moments of farce and productions numbers. Some of the choreographed frames feel cluttered, with an occasional echo of the amped-up musical melodrama Baz Luhrmann settled on for Moulin Rouge, but like another Australian musical by a then young director, Gillian Armstrong’s Starstruck from 1982, Bran Nue Dae carries the day with energy and self-belief.