Bran Nue Dae is an exuberant film adaptation of the iconic Australian stage musical of the same name. Directed by the versatile and intelligent Rachel Perkins it manages to be both a charming and weird celebration of Australian culture, while simultaneously challenging and critiquing the status of Australian aboriginal people.
The story goes like this: It’s the 1960s and teenage Willie is in love with a girl from his home-town in Broome but can’t quite get up the courage to tell her, he gets sent to boarding school with a strict german headmaster (played with ridiculous zeal by the lovely Geoffrey Rush) who tells Willie if he works hard he can leave his aboriginal heritage behind. But, as always, things get complicated and Willie decides to run away, resulting in an adventurous road trip with an ever increasing cast of characters including Ernie Dingo as an alcoholic drifter, Missy Higgens as one of a pair of hippies in a clapped out Kombi Van, and Deborah Mailman as a drunken pub hook up under a tree decorated in condoms.
The colour palette of the film is bright, supernaturally bright in some places, adding to the surreality of the film, and acting as a visual metaphore for the characters displacement in society. The artificial lighting and colours are exacerbated by sets like the school, the city, the bar and the ridiculous hippie kombi van, but seem almost to fade into the background when confronted with natural settings like the beach at Broome and the delicious reds of the outback itself.
I feel like it is a common trope to set stories like these in the 1960s because they distance the audience from the very contemporary topics that are discussing. Bran Nue Dae uses this deflection to great effect, utilising humour, song and dance, and over-the-top characters to tackle issues that are still prevalent in modern discussions around indigenous status, such as racism, homelessness, alcohol abuse, and the casual and condescending dismissal of aboriginal identity by mainstream Australian culture.
Look, as an outsider to Australian culture, I don’t know if I can really participate much in discussions around indigenous status in this country. I can only compare it to NZ, which has its own set of problems and assumptions about indigenous rights and identity, and like any colonial nation, has a significant amount of marginalisation, racism and a history of abuse and institutionalised subjugation towards indigenous cultures. And as someone of European descent, I also know that my experiences of Maori culture in NZ, and indigenous culture around the world are going to be seen through the unique lens of my own privilege and assumptions. I can’t speak for Indigenous people in NZ or Australia. But I can still educate myself and engage with indigenous stories, and challenge the media-makers in these countries to bring these stories into the mainstream.
That is precisely the reason why the work of someone like Rachel Perkins is so extraordinary and important. Her films, like Bran Nue Dae, Radiance and One Night The Moon (which is sorrowful, sparse and almost entirely without dialogue – pretty much the polar opposite to Bran Nue Dae!) and TV like First Australians and Redfern Now are box office and ratings successes that garner awards and capture the public imagination. I recently was lucky enough to hear Rachel Perkins speak at an event on aboriginal storytelling (It was actually at the book launch for this book by Jenny Green, about central australian traditional storytelling techniques which I would totally recommend if you’re into linguistics and narrative semiotics) and she talked about how important it was to document and share aboriginal stories and storytelling methods so that they don’t get lost or worse, become extinct entirely. Perkins uses modern methods such as film and TV to tell stories about one of the most ancient cultures in the world. In doing so, she tells stories about indigenous people using her own indigenous voice, and forces western hegemonic Australia to examine itself and the way it treats those who are ‘othered’ and on the margins simply because of their race or cultural heritage. Her gentle insistence on equality, and her beautiful visualisations of outback and urban Australia are a significant contribution to Australian media and identity.
I totally enjoyed Bran Nue Dae, I thought it was funny, and strange and vibrant. It entertained me and got me thinking. I would highly recommend it. I would highly recommend anything by Rachel Perkins actually, and I’m going to finish with a clip from One Night The Moon just to give you a taste of Rachel Perkins’ talent and versatility.