by Fiona A. Villella
Fiona A. Villella is editor of Senses of Cinema.
Yolngu Boy (Stephen Johnson, 2000), about the friendship between three adolescent Aboriginal men and the way each relates to the ancient cultural tradition to which they belong, arrives at a time when awareness of Australia's colonial history, in particular, phenomena like the 'Stolen Generation', is considerable. But this is a very troubled time of awareness, in which the fight to 'write' or 'claim' 'history' according to one's own political and personal ideology is shockingly evident, as outlined by Robert Manne in a recent article (1). In a public screening for the film that was followed by a Q&A with the director, scriptwriter and producer that I attended, it became quite obvious in the tenor and content of the audience's questions that they not only enjoyed the film but were indeed moved by what they had just seen. It was apparent that the main reason for such a reaction was because the audience was given a rare opportunity to relish in the sounds and images of Aboriginal characters, their communities and their stories, portrayed in a naturalistic, detailed and genuine light. Despite the Australian government's notorious refusal to apologise to the indigenous community regarding Australia's colonial past and its efforts to discredit the 'Stolen Generation' there is a strong willingness among a good portion the Australian public to forge an understanding for indigenous culture and history - a sentiment that was evident at the public screening of Yolngu Boy which I attended.
Referring to questions regarding the film's comment or position in relation to current debates, director Stephen Johnson emphasised that this was of secondary importance and that primary was the drive to capture the energy of the story, the characters and their journey. This is in fact a huge credit to the film and one of its delights - that it is never didactic or dogmatic in its treatment of social and political issues and does not justify its characters or story in the overall scheme of serving such goals. In terms of where Yolngu Boy sits within a broader spectrum of the politics of representation, this is encapsulated in the fact that the film does not deal at all with racial conflict. Yolngu Boy's story and characters derive from within the Yolngu community, in which white people appear infrequently, and when they do, the filmmakers treat it nonchalantly, for example, when icon Jack Thompson appears it is a completely modest and underplayed moment. The most notable examples in Australian cinema history which feature indigenous characters - Charles Chauvel's Jedda (1955), Nicholas Roeg's Walkabout (1970), and Phil Noyce's Backroads (1977) -explore their indigenous characters via inter-racial relationships. However, Yolngu Boy's perspective on Aboriginal culture is completely independent of the wider context of white Australia. One only has to consider the level of detail in the many references throughout the film to traditional objects, symbols, and totems. This level of detail is a result of the local community's full support and the presence of the Yothu Yindi Foundation as one of the film's major producers.
Yolngu Boy begins in flashback mode, with three young Aboriginal boys - Lorrpu (John Sebastian Pilakui), Botj (Sean Mununggurr) and Milika (Nathan Daniels) - gallantly and happily striding through a river at low tide pointing their spears before them, while a voice-over, belonging to Lorrpu, reminisces about "three boys . one dream". The dream, which the older Lorrpu - the one most interested in ensuring the boys embrace their Aboriginal past - reminisces, is that of the three becoming great hunters like their forefathers.
The film then jumps forward to the present day - Lorrpu's flashback swiftly and comically revealed as a fantasised, idyllic Aboriginal past, interrupted by the present-day urging of Milika to join him to play football. Although the film acknowledges this past, as this flashback shows, it is also realistic about the modern world and forthright in suggesting that these two worlds can and do co-exist. Its treatment of these issues with humour and general understatement is one thing that is immediately uplifting about Yolngu Boy.
Early on, the film's central premise is established - at the same time, Lorrpu and Milika are chosen by the Aboriginal elder, Dawu (Nungki Yunupingu), to receive "ceremony" and be initiated into the community's ancestral belief-system, Botj returns home from a 6-month stint in prison for having stolen a motorbike. He is quickly identified as the 'bad boy', the bad seed from within the circle of childhood friends that has grown up to be an angry, rebellious man. Furthermore, he has no family to come home to - his mother has disowned him, convinced that he is a substance abuser like his father - and so Lorrpu and Milika are his surrogate family.
Not long after his return home, Botj urges his friends to join him in robbing a local convenience store for "smokes". The three rampage the store in a sequence of MTV-style proportions immersing themselves as much as possible in all that commodity culture has to offer - food, drink, music, clothes, gadgets and toys. When Botj becomes out of control, Lorrpu's and Milika's attempts to stop him are met with anger and hostility, leading to a rift between the boys and the opening of a spiral of self-destruction for Botj. He begins sniffing petrol, hallucinates at an open religious site and accidentally alights the community centre. Throughout this fantasised sequence, Botj is haunted by the totem of the "baru" (the venerated totem of the Gumatj people; it refers to the crocodile and is represented by a diamond pattern). It is likely he will return to prison for this latest crime, and so the film's journey begins when Lorrpu decides to save Botj from this fate by taking him to Darwin to meet with Dawu, who can protect him from the law (how it is not very clear). Lorrpu convinces both Botj and Milika to join him on the trip from North East Arnhem Land to Darwin even though they have no money and Botj is still injured from the fire.
Throughout the journey through the harsh North Australian outback, the boys gradually resort to ancient cultural practices of hunting and gathering that they learnt as children in order to survive. So the journey facilitates a process of returning to their cultural origins, which in this case is also synonymous with restoring their strong friendship bonds. The complete immersion in the bush and ancient practices is then brilliantly contrasted when the boys arrive in Darwin with the otherworldly, surreal space of shopping malls and suburbia. Shortly after arriving in Darwin, Botj goes to visit his father, who - living amongst what is referred to in the film's press kit as the 'long grass people', "a collection of lost souls in Darwin" - is an alcoholic and is unable to recognise his son at all. The harsh reality of the situation leads Botj down a spiral of self-destruction - of petrol sniffing and his ultimate death. His death becomes a metaphor for an unreconciliation of past and present, a severed identity.
Set among the Yolngu community, located in north-east Arnhem Land, Yolngu Boy takes as its central theme the issue of identity for young adolescent Aboriginal men. The filmmakers have fitted a precise and 'authentic' portrayal of Aboriginal culture, in particular that belonging to the Yolngu people, their rituals and symbols, and the various factors and elements at play within this environment (commodity culture, Western influence), within a narrative journey and traditional 3-act script. However, the forward movement of the narrative and plot is overall too forced, and sometimes threatens to constrain the characters. Consequently there are certain moments in performance, and camera-work where the style is pitched at an overly dramatic, heightened level - but these are dramatic moments not supported by a strong sense of drama in the narrative. This constant plunging forward that the script/narrative performs is echoed in Yolngu Boy's constantly restless style, its constant resort to fast-paced, wild camera movements, sudden zooms, quick editing, and blasting music. This had an overall irritating effect - I kept on wishing the film would slow down, meditate on and flesh out a bit more its characters, their emotional quandaries and even the relation between the landscape and the boys during their all-important journey. At the Q&A, the director described the film as essentially inviting the audience to take this exciting journey, this roller coaster ride, to experience this visceral thrill. Given that one of its main funding backers is the Australian Children's Television Foundation, it comes at no surprise that Yolngu Boy's storytelling structure is very mainstream and that it emphasises the 'feel-good', exciting qualities of going on a journey or that it is filled with high-octane visuals - appropriate for a young audience. Yet a good story for both younger and older audiences is not necessarily guaranteed by a music-clip aesthetic, designed essentially to grip the viewer's attention by having one spectacle of image and sound continuously succeed another.
In fact, this image of sliding between demographics (younger and broad audience) mirrors the film itself - the way it broaches current, complex and serious themes like the reconciliation of two worlds (modern and ancient), alcoholism in Aboriginal communities, crime among Aboriginal adolescents but then constrains them within an overall simplistic and caustic narrative framework. Some moments of the film remain murky and unclear - for example, is the journey to see Darwin or to escape the authorities? And at times throughout the journey, Yolngu Boy's narrative loses any real sense of tension or strong sense of purpose and becomes a travelogue of 3 young men having a great time in the bush. Characters remain problematically clichéd - for example, the character Botj, his rebellion and angst is never satisfyingly explored beyond the gesture of a cliché. His 'bad boy' attitude is treated in an overall caustic and simplistic manner, capped in the final plot denouement in which his death is overly dramatic. Inadequacies in story and script are partly compensated by the three boys' performances, whose natural charisma radiates on the screen.
The film touches on important, current themes in a subtle way - the way white commodity culture insidiously seeps into Aboriginal neighbourhoods; and the way young adults' dreams or self-image are informed by this culture (football, music, fashion). Yolngu Boy succeeds in capturing what it means to be young and Aboriginal - in their connection to the modern, white world (football, popular music, commodity culture). Its noble gesture resides in taking on board the issue of reconciling a modern, consumerist world with an ancient one. The central theme of youth and the precarious position Aboriginal youth especially occupy in being able to reconcile these two worlds is apparently what guaranteed the community's full support. Ultimately, however, Yolngu Boy fails to meet the emotional depths it sets out to achieve and this may be a direct result of its overly caustic narrative and fast-paced, action/adventure tone in which a meditative, reflective quality is disallowed.
© Fiona A. Villella 2001
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