When I first arrived in Perth in 1992, the struggle over the development of the Swan Brewery, located on a Nyungar sacred site of the rainbow serpent dreaming, was still raging. In the darkness of early morning, my housemates and I attended the picket line before construction workers or police arrived. Many of the influential activists of the time sat gathered in circles, including Robert Bropho and the wonderfully vital Yaluritja Clarrie Isaacs.
At that place, the river is wide and flat, and as dawn breaks it possesses a tranquil calm. (Once I watched a solitary dolphin rise to the surface of the water and dip once more beneath, just as the sky turned red and pink, as if the colours had been smudged across the sky by a giant thumb.)
Later, police brought great trucks and dogs. There were clashes. People were hurt. Eventually, the Labor state government and developers got their way. Slowly the protests petered out. Now the brewery houses a restaurant and function centre.
In the recent Australian film Mad Bastards, Nyungar man TJ (Dean Daley-Jones) explains to another Aboriginal that, in his land, a brewery was built on a sacred site. It is a fact of significance, which explains a great deal about TJ’s underlying anger. He is a lost and broken man, damaged by the long years of racism.
Released from prison, he heads north to the Kimberley region to visit his troubled son, Bullet (Lucas Yeeda). Bullet’s mother Nella (Ngaire Pigram) lives a life of alcohol abuse and violence, and so Bullet is quickly becoming a ‘mad bastard’, just like his father.
Daley-Jones’ performance as TJ is mesmerising. It emerged partly from the actor’s own experiences. He has mentioned, for example, that his mother, a white woman, was regularly spat at when she accompanied his Aboriginal father. At the movies, they had to check their watches, for there was a curfew for Aboriginal people. When Daley-Jones was growing up in the 1970s, Aboriginals weren’t allowed to use public swimming pools.
Channelling his own anger into the character of TJ, Daley-Jones broods ominously on the screen.
TJ’s journey is towards the son he has never seen (and his former partner Nella), but also towards community, land, family. In interviews, Daley-Jones has said:
The incarceration rate in Australia for Indigenous men is disgusting. The key for dealing with people, instead of throwing them in jail, is culture, tradition, language and land. I’m not Einstein but I know that’s the way to sort these issues out. [That’s] the message in Mad Bastards – and getting that message out there is the most important thing.
Based on oral histories of people in the area, Mad Bastards is social realism at its best. Both director Brendan Fletcher and Daley-Jones have made much of its ‘authenticity’. Like Ken Loach’s work, the film was semi-improvised, a technique that can lead to meandering scenes and loose plotting but that has the advantage of a verisimilitude not available from a polished script. When good actors improvise, they talk with natural rhythms, cadences and sentence structures. A written script will always seem mannered in comparison.
Mad Bastards follows a remarkable cluster of films from the last decade that tell Indigenous stories or investigate Indigenous issues. Rabbit-Proof Fence, The Tracker, Ten Canoes, Jindabyne, The Proposition, Samson and Delilah, or documentaries like Bastardy – what other art form can boast such a rich interrogation of Indigenous history and life? (Not surprisingly, this combination of content and form has also featured arguably Australia’s greatest actor, David Gulpilil.)
Quite what this cinematic fertility should be attributed to is unclear. Perhaps the emergence of a generation attuned to the importance of Indigenous issues has coincided with the funding bodies getting it right, though it seems surprising that this has occurred without a major revival in Indigenous activism.
Still, if the movies have been critical successes, they remain on the margins of the industry as a whole. Most Australian films are, in fact, pushed out of cinemas and off the television screen by bigger-budget Hollywood blockbusters. Unable to compete with the wild special effects of international movies, Australian filmmakers gravitate towards gritty suburban dramas which audiences stay away from.
There are political and ideological reasons for this reception. For most patrons, film provides fun and escape. At present, only a minority of cinemagoers are interested in films that discuss ‘issues’. (A year ago, I overheard some acquaintances describing how ‘boring’ Samson and Delilah was. When I asked them what films they liked, they listed ‘chick flicks’ and romantic comedies.)
Mad Bastards’ marginality reflects, then, the lack of political mobilisations about Indigenous issues and progressive causes more broadly. In an era in which politics was debated more, the movie would find a greater popularity. Nonetheless, it serves, among other things, to remind those who see it that the Swan Brewery still stands on a sacred site.
Rjurik Davidson is an Overland associate editor and the author of The Library of Forgotten Books.
© Rjurik Davidson
Overland 204-spring 2011, p. 80
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