A beautiful but imperfect movie: Yolngu Boy (2000)

15 Mar

yolngu-boy-5.jpgThere have been notable films about aspects of Aboriginal experience since Yolngu Boy was made — Rabbit-Proof Fence, which I have seen, and Ten Canoes, which I am yet to see — and ongoing documentaries on such programs as Message Stick and Living Black. Yolngu Boy was funded in large part by the Australian Children’s Television Foundation and its cultural credentials underwritten by Yothu Yindi. While not limited to a particular purpose or audience, the film was clearly educational and for a young adult audience. It has since been used in senior school courses.

There is no doubt Yolngu Boy broke new ground in what it explored at the time, and how it explored it. There is a good review of the film by Fiona A. Villella on 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. 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…

It is beautifully filmed, of that there is no doubt. But there are some issues in it as film, as Fiona Villella says:

…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.

I share those reservations, and the rider to them.

Back last century I taught the unit in the old HSC course “Aboriginal Experience”, one result being the Indigenous Australians page on this site. It is not so easy conducting a course on this topic. First, one must realise, and pupils will one hopes learn, that the phrase “Aboriginal Experience” must be questioned: “Aboriginal Experiences” would be more apt. Second, one must realise that mindless good intentions only go so far… Third, one must confront both fierce adolescent idealism on the one hand and equally fierce adolescent cynicism on the other. Well-intentioned education in this area can fall on its face very easily.

Quiet consideration of contextual issues, of the nature of language even and of the nature of Aboriginal English in particular, would not go astray here. Looking at and discussing the material on the DVD and on the movie’s web site from the director and producer would be worthwhile. Organising a visit by someone like Boori Pryor could be another possibility.

In that “Aboriginal Experience” class I had was a lad named Tom who would, I suspect, have made such a video if we had at that time had access to Yolngu Boy. (We did see Kristina Nehm in The Fringe Dwellers, however, and Tom was actually quite impressed.) Tom took up a challenge I put to him, as the unit of work had begun, as these things do, in Term 4 of Year 11, when the HSC starts, and continued into the first weeks of Term 1 the following year. He went to a “Survival Day” event over the holidays where he met a songman. He was intrigued, and had a different attitude to the subject from that point on.

All that aside, I really do commend Yolngu Boy for its heart, its beauty, and its authenticity, and its courage in confronting hot issues like substance abuse and violence. All Australians should see it quietly and thoughtfully. Whether it should be most profitably seen in a classroom atmosphere depends on the tact and knowledge of the teacher.

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Posted by on March 15, 2007 in Aussie interest, Education, Films, DVDs, TV, Indigenous Australians, Multiculturalism and diversity


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