Richard J. Frankland's Indigenous road movie, Stone Bros. has been at the centre of controversy, even before it's released. The film has retained its MA 15+ rating despite significant lobbying by respected Indigenous experts and a call to review by the Federal Minister for Home Affairs.
It is a rating that the distributors say will exclude a core audience, and Frankland questions the Classification Board's motivation. For Frankland, Stone Bros. is a film that “Australia is ready for”. For him, “to make a film that was specifically for my culture wouldn't be right. To make a film that crosses Australian culture is what we set out to do. We took a gamble, there's no question about that, but I hope – touch wood – that the odds are in our favour.”
Stone Bros. is the story of two cousins – Eddie (Luke Carroll) and Charlie (Leon Burchill) – who travel some 600kms from Perth to their family home in the fictional location of Emerald. The comedy tells the story of the cousins' spiritual transformation and realisation of the value of home and family.
In Stone Bros. Frankland's audience is set up as a “fly on the wall” in a family bromance or as he says, “a fly in the car” as the cousins undertake their epic road-trip with 187 hand rolled joints of pure purple head Ganja. Frankland says that humour isn't usually associated with 'Indigenous Filmmaking' yet it is integral to Indigenous Australians. “We live amongst such tragedy but there's always laughter. Amidst all that racial conflict there was all this beautiful laughter and a great time. That's what I see in Indigenous Australia. Amidst the conflict the tragedy, tear drops and the sadness there's this incredibly beautiful laughter. I thought what a great thing for us to be able to share.”
On the road, Eddie and Charlie meet an “Italian Stallion” Vinnie, and their cross-dressing cousin Regina (David Page) who dreams of making it big “on that Koori Idol show”. Frankland says it was an “honour” to have Page on the set. “He'd switch into character and then switch off. You could see that he was exhausted wearing high heels, running and things like that; soldiering on in the most amazing fashion.” Of the bond forged between actors Luke and Leon, Frankland says “they were typical brothers. They locked in. Sometimes I felt like an intruder directing them. They were very respectful men, very professional in their approach. Luke because of all his TV and film experience was an absolute pleasure to work with. Leon the same, but he didn't have as much experience so he was very much riding a new horse in some ways.”
Stone Bros. is a departure for Frankland whose award-winning film work has been extraordinary in its commitment to social commentary and Indigenous history: His first credit as co-writer and presenter of the documentary Who Killed Malcolm Smith (1993) drew on Frankland's experiences with the Royal Commission Into Aboriginal Deaths In Custody; the AFI award-winning short film, No Way To Forget (1996) screened at Cannes in Un Certain Regard; and Harry's War (1999) was an account of Richard's Uncle, Harry Saunders, who fought for Australia in the South Pacific campaign during the Second World War.
Says Frankland, “We need our own heroes. The simple fact is when an Indigenous young person walks around, the only Indigenous hero they see is on the footy field.” This point that is illustrated early in Stone Bros. when a poster of Neil "Nicky" Winmar defiantly lifting his St Kilda football Guernsey and pointing to his skin, in a statement against racism.
It is nuances such as these that distance Stone Bros. from any confusion with a straight “stoner film”. For Frankland, Eddie and Charlie are “fallible heroes,” something that we all have.
“I enshrined several people in my head as I was growing up and I was so glad when I saw them fall over and then get up again because it taught me that I could fall over and I could get up again,” Frankland says. “Some Indigenous and non-Indigenous kid out there is going to see this film and want to respect their family more.”
Certainly, while Stone Bros. will attract a cross-cultural audience it is still a story that could only be told by an Indigenous voice. Like Frankland's previous films, specific cultural knowledge is interwoven throughout the narrative: there is ongoing commentary about cross-cultural relations, and he plays with popular misconceptions both within Indigenous culture and the wider Australian population. For example, there is an ongoing conversation between Eddie and Charlie about the colour of Eddie's (paler) skin and questions of 'authenticity'. Of the observation Frankland says, “I'll cop a bit of flack, for sure, but I don't mind. Every Indigenous person that's seen it says that's happened to me – from both sides of the fence.
“I enjoy telling the story with appendages from my life path and my cultural path. It fundamentally comes down to storytelling for me. To humanise what has been de-humanised. Once you do that – through a brilliant film like Samson and Delilah or Bran Nue Dae and even Stone Bros. you open all these other doors and then it comes down to audience ownership. To give licence to an audience to laugh with you is to give ownership of the story. For them to take it home, inside their hearts and tell their friends… I watched this great story about blackfellas – everyone straight away thinks it's going to be an intellectual discussion. No, no it was funny!”
As Australia's first Indigenous road-movie, Stone Bros. says Frankland, is “an opportunity to plant a seed to allow people to own us and laugh with us.”
**An earlier version of this story appeared online bearing the headline 'Permission to laugh - provided you're over 18'. This was a sub-editing error and SBS Film apologises for any confusion caused by the incorrect age used in the headline **