Starring John Moore, David Ngoombujarra, Jaylene Riley, Lisa Kinchela and John Hargreaves
Written and directed by James Ricketson
Opening in Melbourne and at Valhalla Cinema in Sydney on August 26, Perth on September 2 with other states to follow
Reviewed by Ignatius Kim
"What we did was take the camera and put it inside a blackfella's point of view", says Blackfellas co-star David Ngoombujarra.
Set in Perth, this independent feature film is about young Nyoongah Doug Dooligan (John Moore) at a time when his life begins to diverge from that of his childhood friend/cousin Floyd "Pretty Boy" Davies (David Ngoombujarra). It is based on the book Day of the Dog by Archie Weller who grew up among Nyoongahs.
Doug has just been released from jail and is determined to keep out of trouble. Floyd, who still lives by a quick hand, is cocky, carefree and convinced that his luck will hold out.
Constantly goading Doug into dangerous situations, Floyd wants the old partnership to resume. But it's more than just a hatred of jail that drives Doug straight: he has plans. He wants to make enough money to buy back his father's old property, Yetticup, which has long traditional roots. And he wants to do it without any interference from the law.
"It's a universal story about how difficult it is for any young person to break away from their peer group", says writer/director James Ricketson.
It must be the worst of all dilemmas when loyalty to a lifelong friend and the sense of some higher duty become irreconcilable. There is a tense scene in which Floyd and some other friends coax Doug into a car that Floyd has just stolen. As they pull up to a set of red lights, a police car stops alongside them. Although the cops are oblivious, tension inside the stolen car is uncontrollable and intensified by Doug's ambivalence.
As Ricketson points out, "It's not something that just applies to Aborigines — it could just as easily be a gang of Vietnamese youths in Sydney's western suburbs.
"I wanted less and less a parochial story set in Perth about urban Aborigines and more and more a universal story that could be seen around the world, and wherever you live if you're part of a subculture that is on the fringes of society you could understand the dilemma".
Of course, the experience of Aborigines is very specific, especially
in WA where death-in-custody and imprisonment rates for Nyoongahs remain higher than for their compatriots in other states and where the single daily newspaper The West Australian periodically runs racist campaigns on its front pages.
Several scenes deal with the racism but they fall short of the WA reality.
Says Ricketson: "It's not a social documentary, it's a story. Clearly they live in a society which is often racist, but I presume that any intelligent viewer who comes to see this film understands that there is racism in this country. I didn't think it necessary to nail that on the head, but just to sort of suggest it".
Lisa Kinchela plays Valerie, Floyd's girlfriend who is as determined as Doug to keep her job as a secretary and settle into a responsible life.
"She's a very strong and determined young woman. She works to support the mob, the family, and struggles to survive — she's a survivor", says Kinchela of Valerie.
"I hope my character will encourage other young Aboriginal women to have self-respect and make something of themselves — it's a big world out there.
The film is about respect and communicating."
Valerie's wayward younger sister, Polly (played by newcomer Jaylene Riley), provides Doug with another pole of attraction toward the old ways. Polly is impressionable and has a romantic notion of what it used to be like between Floyd and Doug. At the same time, she comes to love the Doug that unfolds in the film, wanting to accompany him to Yetticup. However, Doug is both uneasy when it comes to relationships and afraid of keeping this link to the past — he wants a complete break.
John Moore ("Deadly","Bran Nu Dae") skilfully brings alive the emotional turmoil in Doug. The simultaneous mix of anger, love, confusion, comes across powerfully and poignantly.
So how did a white film-maker who had never met an Aboriginal until he was in his thirties (when he directed the first episode of the highly acclaimed documentary series "Women in the Sun") place the camera "inside a blackfella's point of view"?
"The Aborigines involved in the film and who have seen it have told me that they feel as though this is their story which I happened to direct. It's their story and I'm the facilitator", Ricketson says.
Much of the dialogue and characterisation was developed by the cast.
Kinchela explains: "It needed to have our input because we're the ones that're performing it and we're looking at it in our way, from our side, which has got to be expressed and heard more: there's always two sides to a story.
"And as cultural performers, we feel a responsibility to present that
Moreover, there was wide consultation among Nyoongahs during the scriptwriting as well as the involvement of many Nyoongahs behind the scenes.
Nevertheless, as Ngoombujarra points out, there is room for wider Aboriginal participation in the film industry.
"I'd like to encourage other young blackfellas to write their own movies. I'd like to see Aborigines take on all kinds of roles in the industry — writing, directing, producing. We can do it and we're proud of what we're doing, but we need the support."
"And respect", adds Kinchela.
Both laughed scornfully when I mentioned that Ngoombujarra's role in Blackfellas was a far cry from his token, stereotyped part in the atrocious "Breaking Loose".
"Oh yeah, when I did 'Breaking Loose' I was found busking on the street at Circular Quay by some fat man in a suit who said, 'Do you want a job?'. I took it. It was my first film."
Blackfellas initially came under some criticism for enforcing stereotypes. Yet, I think this is outweighed by the complexity of the story and the characters presented which invites the viewer to share the emotional experiences. I found it a warm and moving film.
"We've tried to fight racism with the camera and I think it's one of the best ways to do it", says Ngoombujarra. He likens Blackfellas to The Fringedwellers, another look at Nyoongah life in Perth.
Kinchela hopes that "all young people from ethnic backgrounds will learn something from this film because we're all struggling against racism in this European society".