Starring: Sean Munungurr, John Sebastian Pilakui, Nathan Daniels
Director: Stephen Johnson
AUSTRALIAN cinema has traditionally pictured Aboriginal people in three ways.
They have been seen as a violent outback people hostile to white people as in The Birth of White Australia (1928), Heritage (1935), Mad Dog Morgan (1976), Backroads (1977), The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith (1978); a mystical people imbued with special spiritual powers as in Uncivilised (1936), The Phantom Stockman (1953), Jedda (1955), Shadow of the Boomerang (1960), Journey out of Darkness (1965), Walkabout (1970), Storm Boy (1976), Journey Among Women (1977), The Last Wave (1977), We of the Never Never (1982); or a dislocated culture worse off for European settlement as in Backlash (1983), The Fringe Dwellers (1986), Night Cries (1990) BeDevil (1993), Blackfellas (1993) and Radiance (1999).
Yolngu Boy straddles the last two categories.
Written by Chris Anastassiades and directed by Stephen Johnson, both white Australians, this film tells of three Arnhem Land boys, Milika, Botj, Lorrpu, on the verge of becoming men. This film is in large measure a road film (except that most of it is on foot and in boats) about the rites of passage for young men caught in the crossfire between traditional culture and some of the scourges of white settlement.
It sympathetically looks at how these boys seek to find an adult identity which values their culture and can choose wisely from white society.
It is clear that Johnson and Anastassiades formed good relationships with traditional Aborigines in Arnhem Land.
Shot on location, the film-makers are given privileged access to rituals and details about initiation and law not normally divulged to outsiders. As a result the film is as informative as it is entertaining.
Yolngu Boy shows the complexity of Aboriginal society for petrol sniffing, vandalism, violence, alcohol abuse and being in trouble with traditional and white law are strong features in the story as well.
This film, however, hinges around the performances of the three central characters. As engaging and wonderfully warm as some of the moments they create on the screen are (they have the most infectious smiles I have ever seen), these untrained actors are asked to do much in carrying the film as a whole.
For all the importance of its message, the beauty of the pictures and the nobility of the story, the film misses out on being a great film. It is a handsome, enjoyable, but flawed piece of contemporary Australian cinema. That said, we have come a long way in the content and form of the stories we tell about Aboriginal Australians and from this point of view, Yolngu Boy deserves our support.