Essay by Anna Haebich
The 2010 film adaptation of Bran Nue Dae was a risky venture for Rachel Perkins, despite her being a major Aboriginal filmmaker. She was tinkering with the much loved and awarded original stage musical by Broome musician Jimmy Chi, which revolutionised Australian theatre in the 1990s. It also marked a major creative shift from her previous dark and challenging works, One Night the Moon (2001) and First Australians (2008). As Perkins explained in an interview with Margaret Pomeranz, the film was to be enjoyed ‘for being light, for it being entertaining, for it being joyous and celebratory, and a little bit silly and mad . . . not to teach about Aboriginal history, or Indigenous politics or culture’.
Perkins’ gamble paid off. The film was hugely popular, showing to large audiences in city and suburban theatres around Australia and breaking $7 million at the box office. Thousands of Australians of all ages and backgrounds were introduced to this vital Aboriginal musical. However, the reviews in Australia and internationally were mixed. Some mentioned a jumble of genres, occasional poor scripting and young and inexperienced lead actors. Writing inMetro Magazine, Kirsten Krauth described the love story as insufficient to ‘propel the narrative through the dusty, meandering road the characters are forced to traverse’. Others regretted the film’s snipping away at the original musical and Chi’s visionary approach. Jennie Punter of Toronto’s the Globe and Mail noted that the film was a ‘genuine crowd-pleaser at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival’, but also mentioned that ‘the original stage production . . . contained twice as many songs as the movie; not having seen the musical, I wonder whether the trim sapped some of its socio-political oomph.’ I want to add to this conversation my thoughts about enjoying the film’s infectious music and laughter, and some insights from my long, personal association with the stage play, in order to add a new dimension to the appreciation and understanding of both.
It’s 1969 as Bran Nue Dae unfolds in Broome and the Kimberley region of Western Australia. Young Aboriginal boy Willie is torn between studying to be a priest to please his mother and the irresistible attractions of his girlfriend, Rosie. While Willie prevaricates, Rosie succumbs to the charms of the spunky new singer at the Roebuck Hotel on the night before Willie is to catch the bus back to boarding school in Perth. There, Father Benedictus continues the campaign for Willie to join the priesthood; however, his appalling German accent and cruel disciplinary methods alienate Willie, who dreams of going home to Broome and Rosie. Finally, Willie rebels and flees the school. Soon he is sitting with his street-wise countryman, Uncle Tadpole, headed for Broome in the back of a flower-power-decorated Kombi van belonging to two gullible hippies, Annie and Slippery – another German. Speeding down the road behind them is Father Benedictus in his pristine white Mercedes.
The road trip becomes a rite of passage into manhood for Willie, hitherto protected from life’s harsh realities by his mother. As Willie gradually lightens up with Uncle Tadpole’s clowning and jokes, he learns important lessons about humour, his Aboriginal identity and how to stand up and protect himself. He has his first brush with alcohol and wild women, experiences the fear of police brutality and of being locked up, and bears witness to the healing power of Aboriginal culture and spirituality. Back in Broome, Willie’s new learning is soon put to the test as he sets out to regain Rosie and to appease his mother. Belonging and redemption follow for all the characters and the final scene shows them sitting around the kitchen table singing, ‘There’s nothing I would rather be than to be an Aborigine.’
Krauth observes that Australian audiences’ taste in local films is for the ‘feel-good factor: if it makes them laugh, and there’s music involved, they’ll be into it’. In the vein of films like The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) and Muriel’s Wedding (1994), Bran Nue Dae has enough ‘feel-good factor’ to draw in Australian audiences, and then some. It contains an assortment of themes to please all tastes – rite of passage, road trip, first love, coming home, redemption – wrapped in a mix of 1960s nostalgia. The cast is scattered with A-listers and exciting new talent, and songs are performed by the likes of Missy Higgins, Jessica Mauboy, Dan Sultan and Ernie Dingo. The surprise appearance of the Arnhem Land YouTube sensation, the Chooky Dancers, drew loud cheers from the audience each time I saw the film. Stephen Page’s choreography of Aboriginal men dancing to the song ‘Listen to the News’ – staged in conjunction with Broome elders – was spine-tingling. The cinematography renders luscious the arid landscapes of red earth, and the endless blue sky and ocean. The humour is infectious from Uncle Tadpole’s opening comment, ‘Come on we won’t eat you, not yet anyway.’ As Krouth concludes: ‘Bums are on seats. And the audience obviously have taken Perkins at her word. They want to be (seriously) entertained.’
Amid the fun and laughter of the film, memories of the original musical streamed back to me. I know it well; I spent time with Jimmy Chi and his partner, Glennys Allen, in Broome in the mid-1980s when he was working on the songs and the concept. I’d made my own road trip to Broome in a canary-yellow V8 station wagon that was covered with red dust. Jimmy claims I was an inspiration for the character of Annie, and my Noongar partner Darryl for the chubby school boy stealing handfuls of Cherry Ripes and Coca Cola, who says ‘us blackies starving’. All of Jimmy’s friends feature somewhere in the production. When the play was showing in Perth, Jimmy and Glennys stayed with me in Fremantle. I saw the stage production several times there and later in Brisbane, and each time leapt to my feet for the standing ovation. Sitting around the kitchen table after the shows we had countless hilarious conversations about the night’s standout moments, Jimmy had stories about who was doing what backstage and who was there from Broome, and each time we marvelled at the audience’s spontaneous singing of the infectious song ‘There’s nothing I would rather be than to be an Aborigine.’ I presented the film at the Australian Embassy in Berlin for the 2011 Herschfeld-Mack Visiting Professor lecture, during NAIDOC Week, to a sophisticated German audience curious to know more about the German connection and the accents.
Bran Nue Dae was a child of the 1990s – that decade of hope for Aboriginal rights and national reconciliation, which underlie the musical’s strong political messages. Nevertheless, it is gentle and disarming in dealing with unpalatable truths; both the play and the film entertain as they inform. In an interview in 1992 with James Murdoch, for the National Film and Sound Archive, Jimmy Chi talks of a ‘healing process’ and a ‘parable’, and explains: ‘Naked truth is too ugly. That’s why she must be dressed in the finery of parable’. His work contains hints and unexplained fragments about other times, and realities and dark humour about painful pasts. Some truths remain hidden; others are gradually disclosed in the Aboriginal manner of elders imparting knowledge to those in relationships of trust who show application and effort to understand. In this sense, Uncle Tadpole’s ludicrous replies to Slippery’s quizzing and his aloof teaching of Willie are more than just clowning around. The play also uses Nyul Nyul language and ‘Broome talk’ to express Aboriginal culture and identity. Much of this was snipped from the film, but listen to the songs in the credits – ‘Nyul Nyul Girl’ by Dan Sultan and Jimmy Chi’s unbeatable rendition of ‘Bran Nue Dae.’ Recorded in 1981, the title song’s unique combination of Broome Kriol and Chi’s raw voice and frustrated black humour made it an unofficial Aboriginal anthem around Australia. Consider also the powerful scene in the police lockup set in Roebourne, the infamous site of the death in custody of young Aboriginal man John Pat in 1983, and the mysterious, other realities conjured up as the spirits bring strength to Willie while all ten verses of ‘Listen to the News’ – another of Jimmy Chi’s Aboriginal anthems – are sung. Woven through the narrative of Bran Nue Dae are these reflections on what white society offers to Aboriginal people – how it is often harmful, and how strength and healing come from within Aboriginal culture, family and connection to country.
Aboriginal humour, Broome style, is vital to the magic of Bran Nue Dae. For Aboriginal educator Lillian Holt, this humour comes from the daily struggle to survive, as expressed in interviews she recorded with Aboriginal people around Australia: it’s ‘about taking a pretty stressful situation and making light of it’; it’s a gentle humour, ‘a spirit . . . it makes people aware, it opens people’s hearts and minds to something, another way of seeing. And it takes the mickey out of ourselves as well, you know, makes sure we all stay down to earth.’ This plays out in the film as Willie loosens up over the road trip and, as the audience, we settle in and lighten up with him. Humour is also ‘a brilliant vehicle for conveying all those unpalatable truths’, as Mexican–Chicano performance artist Guillermo Gomez explains:
Humour is profoundly political . . . indigenous communities are actively engaged in humour as a means to generate attention to sensitive issues, as a mechanism of survival, as away to elicit public dialogue, a means to generate attention to sensitive issues. Besides, if you are funny, you can get away with murder, and you can appeal to a much wider audience.
The cultural and political tensions of the 1980s and ’90s shaped Chi’s writing of the musical: angry protests over mining exploration at Noonkanbah, Aboriginal deaths in custody, the rapid development of Broome as a tourist town, Mabo and the struggle for native title, the Stolen Generations and continuing unemployment and poverty. Humour and music make a potent mix that ‘brings people into a dialogue’. An example of this is found in the song ‘Bran Nue Dae’: ‘Other day I bin longa to social security. I bin ask longa job – they bin say, “Hey, what’s your work experience?” I bin tell ’em, “I got nothing.” They say, “How come?” I say, “Cause I can’t find a job.”
In the 1990 anthology Aboriginal Voices, Jimmy Chi explains that music is ‘therapy – a comfort, a spiritual source that made me write about all the pain that was in me about a lot of issues, and helped me to relate to the world again’. He speaks with the director of The Making of Bran Nue Dae, Tom Zubrycki, of ‘raising awareness through music you’re exposed to in the performance, this other spiritual dimension in the play . . . Bran Nue Dae is a healing process.’ In his interview with Murdoch, Jimmy describes his childhood as ‘a time of wonder’ immersed in the cultural variety of Broome, being himself of Nyul Nyul, Japanese, Chinese and Scottish descent. He didn’t pick up the guitar until he left university, but soon began writing songs inspired by the eclectic mix of music he’d heard in Broome from childhood: Malaysian, Indonesian, Torres Strait, Chinese (opera), Japanese, Aboriginal (myths, dance and kaba kaba songs), Irish (Catholic hymns and Latin mass), gospel and songs about pearling and the sea. He saw the opera Carmen, and watched My Fair Lady and West Side Story at the Broome Sun Theatre. Add to this mix country, pop, blues, reggae and rock, and singer-songwriters like Kris Kristofferson, who, Jimmy told me, gave him ‘the confidence to write about real situations rather than love love love . . . He talked about the loneliness and the desperation of people.’ Strains of these various influences can be heard in the many songs that feature in Bran Nue Dae.
Chi’s musical is ‘semi-autobiographical’; Willie’s experiences are based on Jimmy’s own time of purgatory from age twelve, when he was sent to board at the Pallottine Training Centre in Perth with other Broome boys who showed academic promise, and attended Clontarf and then Aquinas College as a day student. The Pallottines also ran the Beagle Bay mission north of Broome, where Jimmy’s mother grew up. Some were Germans and the accent and disciplinary tactics of one in particular, Father Luemens, became the inspiration for Father Benedictus. Pressures on Jimmy to assimilate – to become ‘An Acceptable Coon’ (the title of a later song) – while still being labelled as an Aboriginal Australian, even though his father had been interned in the Second World War ‘as a Japanese and an Australian enemy’, brought on an identity crisis, exacerbated by a serious car accident in Perth. This, too, is reflected in the confusion of identities in Bran Nue Dae and the quest for healing and wholeness. The theme recurs in Jimmy Chi’s musical Corrugation Road (1996).
According to Aboriginal actor and singer Ba’amba (Stephen Albert), the power and uniqueness of Bran Nue Dae comes from its being ‘conceived, developed and produced by Aboriginal people’. As Jimmy explains, it is a story for all of us: ‘. . . it is my story but it is also yours and everybody else you know who seeks love and happiness in a world clouded by injustice.’ Bran Nue Dae is a beacon light in Aboriginal and Australian cultural history. The musical and the film both introduced Australian audiences to new visions of Aboriginal theatre and film as innovative, exciting and fun, and brought new generations of Aboriginal people into these industries.
Chi, J & Haebich, A 2013, Interview, Broome, 28 June 2013.
Chi, J & Kuckles 1991, Bran Nue Dae: a Musical Journey, Currency Press, Sydney; Magabala Books, Broome.
Chi, J & Murdoch, J 1992, Interview at Sun Pictures Theatre, Broome, National Film and Sound Archive, no. 289163, October 1992.
Gomez-Pena, G & Levin, L (ed.) 2011, Conversations Across Borders: a Performance Artist Converses With Theorists, Curators, Activists And Fellow Artists, Seagull Books, New York.
Holt, L 2009, ‘Aboriginal Humour: a Conversational Corroboree’ in de Groen, F & Kirkpatrick, P (eds.), Serious Frolic: Essays On Australian Humour, UQP, St Lucia.
Krauth, K 2010, ‘The Frangipani is Starting to Bloom: a New Brand of Musical in Bran Nue Dae’, Metro Magazine, no. 164, pp. 10–15.
Pomeranz, M 2009, Interview with Rachel Perkins, At the Movies, 6 December 2009, accessed 7 June 2014 <http://www.abc.net.au/atthemovies/txt/s2750507.htm>.
Punter, J 2010, ‘Bran Nue Dae: a bumpy road movie’, Globe and Mail, 24 September 2010, viewed at <http://www.theglobeandmail.com/arts/film/bran-nue-dae-a-bumpy-road-movie/article4326827/>.
Message Stick 2010, ‘The story of Bran Nue Dae’, ABC, accessed 16 December 2014 <http://www.abc.net.au/tv/messagestick/stories/s2811578.htm>.
Thompson, L (ed.) 1990, Aboriginal Voices: Contemporary Aboriginal Artists, Writers and Performers, Simon & Schuster Australia, Brookvale.
Zubrycki, T (director) 1991, Bran Nue Dae, National Film and Sound Archive, no. 235013.
© Copyright Anna Haebich 2015