Challenging Affirmations – A Brief Look at Australian Aboriginal Cinema


Gisella Livia Lie sheds light on a small but important part of world cinema through ‘The Sapphires’ and ‘Bran Nue Dae’.

How do we see the world? Gill Branston and Roy Stafford argued that no matter how compelling some media images might seem, they never actually present the real world. They are always constructions and representations, assumptions generated by powerful people in society. Certain images, stories and situations, which are often represented by media, will possibly seem familiar. As a result, it will give society ways of imagining particular groups and identities. This process is considered as stereotyping, which works by taking particularly obvious features presumed to belong to a group.

I will take a look at certain general assumptions of Australian society, focusing on issues related to race and national identity. The rise of aboriginal films from a number of years ago have necessitated a deeper analysis on whether these assumptions are affirmed or challenged. In particular, the musical comedy-drama films, ‘Bran Nue Dae’, directed by Rachel Perkins, and Wayne Blair’s ‘The Sapphires’, will be provided as further food for thought in this context here. In short, ‘Bran Nue Dae’ tells the journey of an Aboriginal teenager who tried to find his way back home after running away from a boarding school. Touching on a similar theme, ‘The Sapphires’ features four Aboriginal sisters on a journey of their own as they sang for American soldiers during the Vietnam War.

The-Sapphires1It almost goes without saying that race is one of the most common stereotypes in films. Again, Branston and Stafford considers race as the category that usually divides people via observable differences in appearance like colour, hair and bone structure. By and large, the Aboriginal race is often underrepresented in media (very few films show their presence), so when their characters appear, they are often regarded as representations of their whole community.

Perhaps this is a time to consider assumptions made of the Aboriginals. One relates to relative inferiority when compared to white people, and both films appear to confirm this assumption; in ‘The Sapphires’, there is an African-American soldier, Robby (Tory Kittles). As one of his comrades got hurt, he tried to assist him. However, his good intentions were disrespectfully rejected by the white American soldier merely because he was black. The injured man even exclaimed, “Get your nigger hands off me! Keep that black dog away from me!” What is obvious is also what is not shown: over 7000 Australian soldiers fought in the Vietnam war, yet they were nowhere to be seen in the film, if at all. This could be read as the making of certain assumptions about the worthiness such characters, and Robby, positioned here as the outsider, could be a representation of that. Assumptions about assumptions are not the best way forward, but this particular theme continues in ‘Bran Nue Dae’ as well. Finding his way back home, Willie Johnson (Rocky McKenzie), the aforementioned Aboriginal teenage runaway, meets Uncle Tadpole (Ernie Dingo). Sharing pearls of wisdom one night under the bridge, Uncle Tadpole said what was on the minds of many: “We all dirty.” To a certain extent, it highlights a complicity with this implicity amidst all this complexity.

Another assumption made is that they are shortsighted, meaning that they just live for the moment and do not worry about what the future holds. Again, Willie’s decision to run away is held up as an example of this, deserting a formal education that will benefit him in upcoming years, without even considering his future at all. He chose to be at home, to fish and be with his family. An identical notion could be found in ‘The Sapphires’, as expressed by Kay (Shari Sebbens), one of the singing sisters in the film: “If you people worked as much as you fished. You’d be really rich you know?” Kay may well be an Aboriginal (of sorts), but her position here is more complex than that, a fair-skinned young woman having been taken away from her family at an even younger age. It can be observed that both films approve the assumption which believes that the Aborigines are not really concerned about their future.

Bran-Nue-Dae-006Benedict Anderson talks about the nation as an imagined political community which is both intrinsically limited and sovereign. It is imagined because despite the fact that members do not know most of their fellow members, the image of their communion lives on in each mind. It is further imagined as limited because there will always be finite (if elastic) boundaries between nations. Lastly, it is imagined as sovereign because sovereignty acts as the gauge and emblem of freedom. In other words, the community has full rights to determine its own boundaries. Applying this concept here, it can be argued that national identity is the imagined quality and characteristic of a community, which in a bigger scope is a nation.

A little bit of history: between the years 1890 and 1970, white Australians imagined their own national identity as an ‘all-white community’. In order to achieve this goal, they implemented a policy that resulted in the Stolen Generation, what Jens Korff defines as young Aboriginal children and babies being forcefully taken away from their families to be raised in a white community to end the Aboriginal culture. The main target of the authorities was those of mixed descent because they could be easily assimilated into white society.

‘The Sapphires’ reaffirms this imagined community of white Australians, as the same thing happened to the aforementioned Kay. Furthermore, the film also confirms the assumption that their idea of the community led them to dislike and mistreat Aboriginal people. The talent quest scene, for example, showcased the organisers being unfairly unwilling in awarding the Aboriginal girls the victory they deserved, simply because of personal resentment. Their singing talents, evidently, were not enough to stave off comments telling them to “pack your swags and get back to the humpy… Thought I told you Abos to get off my premises!”

07976ea96e5beee9b7f72be7642eee0aTaking a slightly different tack, ‘Bran Nue Dae’ challenges these forms of identification. The white Australians who ran the boarding school in Clontarf, for example, were willing to educate Aboriginal teenagers to become a priest. They hoped that those teenagers would be able to help their own people in the future, just like what Father Benedictus (Geoffrey Rush) said: “My greatest desire is to see you Aborigine people educated and trained in the skills of the modern world.” Of course, the religious ideals behind such comments shouldn’t be ignored, but the fact remains that there is a difference that is to be noted here from ‘The Sapphires’.

What of the Aboriginals’ own imagined community? Paul Makeham asserts that the major means of transmitting and sustaining the Aboriginal culture are through words, spoken and sung. Therefore they believe that their sense of identity and pride of their own heritage lie amongst these songs. This is because by singing, they are re-enacting the heroic journeys of their elders. Both films affirm this belief by looking at how often the Aboriginal characters sing and even express their emotions through it. In ‘Bran Nue Dae’, Uncle Tadpole sings of signs of alienation in their own homeland through ‘Long Away From My Country’, while ‘Listen to the News of Our People’ shows resentment towards the history of black people deaths in custody. The film’s conclusion saw a collective performance of ‘Nothing I Would Rather Be’, a more ironic and comedic take on their own history, though it was no less heartfelt.

As such, both films also approve of Makeham’s idea that Aboriginal characters are defined by their actions and how they express their community, rather than any shared racial characteristics. In ‘The Sapphires’, the young ladies were able to blend in easily with the American troops in Vietnam, a large number of which was black. This is because they broadened their boundaries under the considerations that all of them were strangers in the country. As mentioned before, the closing scenes of ‘Bran Nue Dae’ express similar sentiments, as Uncle Tadpole speaks of the collective identity that binds them together: “Today, everyone’s an Aborigine.”

Based on these scenes, it can be examined that not only do they determine the boundary of their imagined community through actions and not physical appearance, but there is also a certain assumption of power that is taken by them, one that determines definitions on their behalf by themselves. As such, the balance of power in they see themselves (as well as how the world sees them) shifts ever so slightly in their favour.

Her surname might be Lie, but Gisella speaks the truth. We previously reviewed another Australian Aboriginal film ‘Samson and Delilah’.

Featured image credit: The Creative Coast


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