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Celebrating Aboriginality on the road from Freo to Broome


Bran Nue Dae (PG). Running time: 85 minutes. Director: Rachel Perkins. Starring: Rocky McKenzie, Jessica Mauboy, Ernie Dingo, Geoffrey Rush, Missy Higgins, Tom Budge, Magda Szubanski

Bran Nue DaeThere's nothing I would rather be/Than to be an Aborigine.

Moments after I left the cinema, I caught myself singing it. For the next hour the melody continued to bob about in my brain. Not a malicious infection, like an insidious pop song might be, but infectious nonetheless. I'm sure anyone who heard me whistling it would unknowingly have picked up the tune. The song, like the film it appears in, tends to remain with you. In most cases the association will be a fond one.

Yes, Bran Nue Dae is silly, but it's fun. It is imbued with such joyful irreverence that it's hard to imagine that any but the grumpiest of filmgoers could bear it ill-will. Take, for example, Missy Higgins, in her supporting role as an airhead hippy. Clearly, she's been cast for her singing, her persona, and not her acting. But she visibly has a good time with the role. Likewise Geoffrey Rush, who hams it up as a nasty German born priest, Father Benedictus.

Bran Nue Dae is a musical-comedy-coming-of-age-road-movie, directed by filmmaker and Arrente woman Rachel Perkins, and based on the 1990 stage musical of the same name. Set in the mid-1960s, it follows the adventures and the eccentric encounters experienced by Aboriginal teen Willie (McKenzie) as he traverses the long stretch of highway from Fremantle to Broome.

After fleeing the Christian mission where he had been sent to be schooled by the brutal and patronising Benedictus, Willie heads north, drawn homewards to Broome by idyllic memories of spear-fishing off the untouched coastline, and by images of the angelic face of his would-be girlfriend, Rosie (Mauboy).

He gets a little help on his way from the drunken, roguish Uncle Tadpole (a show-stealing Dingo), as well as a couple of impressionable young hippies (Budge and Higgins) who unwittingly agree to drive the Aboriginal pair 'up the road' to Broome in their fried-out combie.

Easier said than done. Benedictus is in pursuit, never far behind them on the sweltering highway. Even if they can escape him Willie has his own self-doubts to endure: once he gets home, he'll still need to somehow stare down his rival for Rosie's affections, thuggish bar singer Lester (soul singer Sultan, revelling in this swaggering bad boy role).

Along the way there is a run-in with the cops, and with an inappropriately lascivious rural shop owner (Szubanski). There's also plenty of song and dance numbers in a range of genres, from rock'n'roll to old-fashioned Broadway style showstoppers. Meanwhile the Australian outback looks stunning through Perkins' expansive cinematic eye.

If Perkins' name sounds familiar, it's because she was one of the directors of First Australians. That TV doco series pored over colonised Aboriginal history. Bran Nue Dae dances through it. And where last year's important but bleak Indigenous feature Samson and Delilah (which, incidentally, is screening on ABC2 this Sunday) favoured realism, Bran Nue Dae is pure escapist entertainment.

It rarely keeps a straight-face, which is not to say it doesn't tick off a checklist of serious truths about the realities faced by Indigenous Australians of the day: along with alcoholism and police brutality, the trend of separating Indigenous children from their families. Not to mention colonisation itself — the theme song adds:

There's nothing I would rather be/Than to be an Aborigine/And watch you take my precious land away.

A few drops of medicine sopped onto a giant spoonful of sugar. In truth Bran Nue Dae could provide an accessible means for introducing young people to the ongoing impacts of white settlement upon Indigenous Australians. But mostly, it's a celebration of Aboriginality itself (the white characters are, without exception, doofuses), and Willie's rediscovery of his ancestral roots is the film's thematic core.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles and reviews have been published by Melbourne's The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier-Mail and The Big Issue. He was Chair of the Interfaith Jury at the 2009 St George Brisbane International Film Festival.

Topic tags: Bran Nue Dae, Rachel Perkins, Jessica Mauboy, Ernie Dingo, Geoffrey Rush, Missy Higgins



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Existing comments

Tim, great piece. I went to see this movie last week, and have spent the week singing "there's nothing I would rather be" - I even left the cinema and bought the soundtrack. I enjoyed your review.

Beth Doherty | 21 January 2010  

Looking forward to seeing it. I saw the stage play in Perth in the 1990's and left singing too. I hope the film has done it justice. Thanks for the review.

Liz Lillis | 21 January 2010  

Good to know the corect spelling for the plural of doofus.

Sandie Cornish | 21 January 2010  

Thanks for the review,I saw the stage show in Brisbane with a majority aboriginal audience who were in an uproar of enjoyment.Should mention the author of the original script,Jimmy Chi,his wiki here..http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jimmy_Chi

Danny Rose | 21 January 2010  

Saw it yesterday and the melody still lingers. Loved the raw talent and energy in it. Where did all those bright young people come from?

The sugar coated message is pretty clever too.

David Sykes | 21 January 2010  

I saw Bran Nue Day tonight and really enjoyed it. It didn't flinch from a look at issues facing the aboriginal community today, but it was done with a light hand - and the music was really great. If you want to see it before it disappears out of cinemas - go now!

Lenore Frost | 28 January 2010  

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