Bran Nue Audiences For Indigenous Film


I was pretty unfair recently. I judged a young bloke, a film graduate, for not knowing who Rachel Perkins is.

"What about First Australians?" I probed. "You know, the SBS series? You do know that don’t you?"

But irrespective of how hard I tried, it was useless. There was simply no recognition whatsoever. At the time it really irritated me. I couldn’t comprehend how a seemingly intelligent Australian — and a film enthusiast at that — could have missed the work of one of this nation’s most important Indigenous artists. I concluded that his lack of knowledge probably stemmed from a lack of interest.

I thought about him again today as I watched Perkins’ latest flick, Bran Nue Dae. Based on the 1990s stage musical by Jimmy Chi, the film — set in 1960s Broome — is camp, colourful and light. It’s largely a coming of age story centred on a gawky and inexperienced teenage boy’s love for a pretty and sophisticated girl. Kind of like Grease in reverse but with a blackfella bent.

It dawned on me as I left the screening with a goofy smile on my face, that if we want more Australians to see Indigenous film, to watch the work of Indigenous artists, films like Bran Nue Dae could very well be the key. There’s a number of big names in it — a couple of which are extremely popular with the young’uns (like Missy Higgins and Jessica Mauboy) — which, combined with the film’s sexy and fun sensibility, are likely to make it appealing to loads of everyday teens. In fact, it’d be a great date movie — perfect for those sweaty-palmed encounters over shared popcorn and choc-tops.

Don’t get me wrong — the film, like the play, is built on political themes, but thanks to Perkins’ finesse with genre, audiences will learn about aspects of ugly Australian history within a non-threatening and enjoyable context. And who knows, the kiddies may even start humming along to the catchy tune that is, "All I Want To Be Is An Aborigine". Regardless of whether or not those lyrics catch on, this film has the potential to reach a number of Australians new to Indigenous film.

I’ve been a film enthusiast for a long time. I love my sweet, air-conditioned 90 minutes in the cinema, and I welcome the medium in a variety of manifestations. I’m happy to pay to see films that are confronting, educational or experimental — films that might leave me feeling heavier than I did before. But I also understand that this is not the case for a large number of cinema-goers, many of whom are looking to be swept away at the end of a working week to faraway Movieland. Somewhere safe, larger and louder than life and smelling of escapism (and buttery popcorn). Bran Nue Dae with its sexy cast and idyllic Broome location could very well be on the itinerary.

A few years ago I interviewed Susan Moylan-Coombs from the ABC’s Indigenous Programming Unit. She was extremely passionate about the notion of colour-blind casting and felt that the lack of Indigenous presence on Australian screens in popular film and television was serving to shape an unrealistic portrait of true-to-life Aussie society and culture. Not much has changed on that front. And yet when it does happen, it works brilliantly. Deborah Mailman’s role as uni-student Kelly in the television series, The Secret Life Of Us, is a salient example of how natural this type of casting can be. And that’s just it. Casting Indigenous actors to play a variety of roles is natural because it’s reflecting real life.

But while we’re waiting (with bated breath) for this to happen, gee it’d be nice to see a shift in form. It would be unbelievably refreshing to have some respite from the stylistic main-stayers that are naturalism and social realism and clear the way for the exciting possibilities that the glorious world of genre has to offer.

Imagine a television series set in the Block in Redfern with all the character complexity and fast-paced action of HBO’s The Wire. Or a sci-fi flick set in a future where creatures of the Dreamtime finally have their revenge on a disrespecting Judeo-Christian world. A significant foray into the wide world of genre could very well be the breakthrough we need both in terms of bums on seats and cultural and political education.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.