I attended the Wednesday screening of the film Bran Nue Dae at the Lensic Theater in Santa Fe and stayed for a Q&A session with Writer/Director Rachel Perkins and Jimmy Chi(?). First of all the film was very good. That is a huge compliment from me because I absolutely hate musicals. Musicals make me yawn and fidget. I know, it’s a terrible flaw in my personality. And yet, every once in a while somebody talks me into going to one, usually with something along the lines of “But this one will be different! You’ll love it!” But really, Pink Floyd’s The Wall and The Who’s Tommy are the only musicals I can stand – and I think purists probably don’t think of those as real musicals – I think the proper term for them is “Rock Opera?” Anyhow, I will tell you “This musical is different! You’ll love it.” It might not be totally perfect, there are a few moments that seem slightly belabored, but not enough to drag. I wish that the advertising for the event had included the fact that there would be a Q&A afterward. I ducked out to go the restroom and missed the beginning of the Q&A. I figured that one of the speakers was Rachel Perkins, but never got to hear the name of the man speaking along with her. If you know who that was, please make a comment below so I can add that info!
And now for the real point of this essay: 1) Why is this film important? and 2) Why should it be at SWAIA Indian Art Market?
1) Bran Nue Dae is based on a play written by three Australian Aboriginal writers. The play did very well in Australia and it has taken something like ten years to transform it into a screen play and get the film made and distributed. The screenplay was written by Rachel Perkins, Jimmy Chi, and Reg Cribb. The storyline centers around a young man who is sent to boarding school to become a priest. He runs away and the bulk of the movie consists of his adventures on the lam and his return to Broome where he must confront his mother. The movie deals with the violence and racism in boarding school environments that aim to acculturate indigenous peoples. Other heavy-duty issues come up: alcoholism, homelessness, sexual misconduct by priests, incarceration of aboriginal men in neck chains for long transports on foot. My understanding from hearing the Q&A session and from discussions with acquaintances more familiar with Australia than myself, is that these issues are usually only addressed in Australia with an air of remorse, tragedy, and a heavy dose of White guilt. In the Q&A, Rachel Perkins spoke about approaching those subjects with a full dose Aboriginal humor and irony. In the audience, I kept waiting for that horrible blow that would make me angry on the character’s behalf or that would make cry in sympathy/frustration. Nope. The filmmakers used humor, irony, musical sequences, and dance choreography to resist the master narrative of the tragic and pain-filled lives of Aborigines. Watch the trailer and you’ll see what I mean. A crucial sequence that sets the tone of the film occurs when Willy is standing before the priest about to get smacked with a board labelled “Thou Shall Not Steal.” After the priest uses some ethnic slurs and swings the board down for the first strike, Willy ducks out of the way and breaks into song and dance. (Lyrics: There is nothing I would rather be, than to be an Aborigine). The rest of the boys join in and the three priests are overwhelmed and outnumbered. Willy makes his escape instead of sticking around to nobly take his beating and get civilized by the church (I am using nobly and civilized ironically here, but you probably already know that). You can watch a preview of the film Here: Bran Nue Dae.
I could write a great deal of analysis of the film, but I need to try to sneak in a siesta before I head off to the Poeh Museum for the AXIOM show…especially the fashion stuff. I learned my lesson earlier this week. I can’t do art art art all day without crashing and burning in the evening. And when can I write if that happens, eh? I will move on to question #2) Why does this film fit in with SWAIA’s Indian Art Market? To me, it seems like a no brainer that we should be building ties between international indigenous communities, including art organizations, markets, and individual artists and scholars. Our Native artists struggle financially regardless of the media we work in: jewelry, pottery, weaving, painting, photography, film, new media, literary arts. Why should we each fight individually for a place in the market, for greater understanding of our cultures and our aesthetics and the validity of our forms of knowledge. Sometimes, situations are set up that make it look like we are competing against each other. What we are really competing against is history, ignorance, and naiveté. On some occasions there is even unconcealed racism.
Bran Nue Dae has been hugely successful in Australia, not just as an Aboriginal film, but as an Australian film. It is now beginning to have a small distribution in the US that may lead to a much wider distribution. The success of an indigenous-made film from anywhere in the world has the potential to develop a ripple effect, providing better opportunities and funding to other artists, writers, directors. Building ties – instead of competition – is crucial for us as Native peoples and as artists.
I was having coffee (and yummy pinon pancakes) at the restaurant The Plaza this morning with artist Erica Lord and scholar Marianne Riphagen. Riphagen is from Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen and she specializes in contemporary Australian Aboriginal art. The subject of cultural protocol came up and we all a bit surprised that were no protocols happening as part of Indian Art Market. I suppose that is because of the nature and history of the Market. I teach at The Evergreen State College, where we have The Longhouse Education and Cultural Center. The Longhouse sponsors and hosts many gatherings of Native artists, including ongoing relationships with Maori artists and Hawaiian Native artists. Anytime there is a get-together, appropriate cultural protocols are devised to welcome our guests and begin our exchanges on a footing of honor and cooperation amongst all present. We come together and meet Nation-to-Nation. And then we meet individual-to-individual. These cultural protocols are a negotiated set of social ceremonies of welcoming based on the traditions of each of the groups involved. That sort of protocol probably isn’t practical for Market, but my ideas about why it is important for events like the screening of Bran Nue Day to be part of the overall programming come from my experiences of inter-tribal art events that include such welcoming protocols. Welcoming artists from other indigenous communities helps us build our networks and strengthens our communities.
The Market operates the way the Market operates, but I will say that opening the official events to include film, video, and experimental work from all over this continent and from indigenous communities elsewhere in the world is building a foundation for cooperation, intercultural exchange, and ultimately a better presence for our Native artists globally… far beyond the weekend of SWAIA’s Indian Art Market.