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Australia released, PAL/Region 4 DVD: LANGUAGES: English ( Dolby Digital 5.1 ), ANAMORPHIC WIDESCREEN (1.85:1), SPECIAL FEATURES: Interactive Menu, Scene Access, Trailer(s), SYNOPSIS: Paul Goldman's feature film debut Australian Rules is a sports drama that combines a coming-of-age story with an examination of race relations between Australians and Aboriginals, and a sensitive interracial love story. Gary Black (Nathan Phillips) is a 16-year-old who plays on the local Australian rules football team. His best friend is aboriginal Dumby Red (Luke Carroll), the star of the team. After Dumby wins the big game, the racist coach denies him the credit he deserves. This leads to a series of dramatic confrontations capped off by Gary confronting his racist father. Australian Rules was screened at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival. SCREENED/AWARDED AT: Australian Film Institute, Film Critics Circle of Australia Awards, Sundance Film Festival, ...Australian Rules
- Language : English
- Director : Paul Goldman
- Media Format : Import, PAL, Widescreen
- Run time : 94 minutes
- Actors : Tom Budge, Martin Vaughan, Nathan Phillips, Luke Carroll, Lisa Flanagan
- Language : English (Dolby Digital 2.0)
- Studio : Palace Films
- ASIN : B01LWDAIKJ
- Country of origin : Australia
- Number of discs : 1
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The film was adapted from two Philip Gwynne novels, ‘Deadly Unna?’ and its sequel ‘Nukkin Ya’ – indigenous slang for ‘see you later’. The film was commissioned by South Australia Film Corporation for the Adelaide Festival of Arts 2002, and at it's initial film screening some aborigine critics claimed the film smacked of racism. Amongst other things it also highlighted to a wider audience the ‘cultural insensitivities’ as to how films and books touching indigenous issues were made in Australia at that time.
Is it right for a white film maker to be entitled to tell an aboriginal story? Or, to put it another way, should white ‘blacked up’ actors be playing black actor roles? Do we allow artistic freedom or revert to censorship? These questions have no definitive answer, but are nevertheless important to bear in mind within this review.
My own view is that this film still has great relevance to both the younger and older generation of Australians on how they view their relationship with the aboriginal people today.
Going back 18 years to 2002, some viewers may be forgiven for thinking that the title ‘australian rules’ is solely a film about a football code. It is not. Equally, audiences who watched the film ‘Bend it like Beckham’ in 2002 may recall this film was, also, not just about football.
While both films have similar themes running through their storylines, however, both film plots differ in their respective outcomes.
In ‘Bend it like Beckham’ the film tackles some crucial questions on race and how this can impinge with ethnic minority groups living in Britain. In 'Bend it like Beckham' the plot draws parallels between the two girls families ethnicity - one white British and one Indian Sikh. We straight away become privy to a cultural disparity between traditional Indian Sikh values based around 'the family' with what it meant, in 2002, to be a young British Asian living in Britain. In the process the film sheds some light around British Asian female pretensions, then, to live independent lives and the wishes of their parents.
‘australian rules’ on the other hand shows how the film’s themes of ethnicity and race work on more than one level; in an inter-racial relationship between an aboriginal young women, Clarence and Gary a white Australian adolescent can help foster the grief Gary feels to lose his best friend, Dumby Red, Clarence’s brother and on another level Gary’s relationship with his abusive racist father.
The film’s visual tone as captured by director of photography and cinematographer Mandy Walker is distinctive: using a ‘chocolate’ filter over the lens lends the film a coloured wash - light yet bold and stark. Indeed, Walker has captured, rather well, “a barren, sordid and in decay landscape” which seems to fit in nicely as a back drop to the small ‘shabby’ fictious fishing town named Prospect Bay lying on the South Australian coast where this film is set. Not far away is the Mission, an aboriginal settlement. [It’s set among the indigenous people of the Yorke Peninsula town].
Music accompanying the film though sparse is nothing but provocative and haunting, particularly in the opening and closing credits’; while track 4, 'Clarence and Blacky' is suffused with warmth and gently plays on their relationship in a delicate way.
The story is about a sixteen-year-old adolescent, Gary Black, known to his mates as ‘Blacky’. In simple terms it’s a story about ‘mate ship’ and love.
Blacky plays for his local football team, Prospect Bay, he is an average player but suddenly and, un-expectably is promoted to ‘ruck’ position where he accidently helps his team to win the Football Grand Final.
After the game, celebrations at the community hall follow, but are marred when Blacky’s aboriginal best friend, Dumby Red, clearly the ‘Best on the Ground’ player, is passed over and denied the coveted medallion. Local white officials decide to award the medallion to the coach’s son. Is this spite or racism in action or both? Your left to decide yourself.
Struck by the emptiness of the victory given the injustice it represents to his mate Dumby Red, Blacky takes off with Clarence. They end up spending time together under the jetty talking and smoking. Both are starting to fall for one another because Blacky’s love of words speaks directly to her own. In a quiet moment they kiss.
Dumby Red meanwhile along with his ex-con cousin, Pretty decide in the early hours to rob the establishment where the drunken post match celebrations have taken place. However, the robbery ends in tragic circumstances - Dumby Red is fatally shot by Blacky’s father, Bob Black.
‘australian rules’ is partly inspired by elements of actual events that occurred 43 years ago in 1977 at Point Pearce, near Port Victoria in South Australia. It was here that a group of aboriginal youths broke into a hotel/pub. Two were shot and killed by the hotel owner who confronted them during the break-in. The owner was not charged for the killing, as he was found to have killed the youths in self-defence
The problem for the film makers is what happens when fiction mirrors fact? Do you rewrite the script and take this scene, a crucial element in the narrative, out? Or do you leave the script as it is and there by upset the local aboriginal community?
Gwynne while acknowledging that his story was ‘loosely related’ to that incident, was at pains to point out his story also has significant differences. For example the character Dumby Red was based on his best friend when he was growing up in the 1960’s, an aboriginal man who’s still alive.
Similarly critic, Paul Byrnes writing for Australian Screen - part of the National Film & Sound Archive of Australia (NFSA website) - pointed out, “Many significant Australian films are loosely based on real incidents involving aborigines.”
In the end the film makers opted to keep the scene in. Not unsurprisingly, the aboriginal community boycotted the film and as a consequence provoked a furore of sharp words and heated tempers.
Aborigines thought, “The subject of racism had been treated in a shallow indigenous way…” this was not lost on one vocal critic, Romaine Moreton, who voiced her concerns in Australian Screen (NFSA website), and damningly wrote “…‘australian rules’ perpetuates [racism] the very thing it wishes to assess critically.”
I can readily empathise with the feelings of the aboriginal people, for It must have looked and felt as if aboriginal views were just being completely ignored.
David Wilson, a prominent aboriginal activist from the Point Pearce community, has argued that the film makers had no right to tell what was essentially an aboriginal story – even if fictionalised. Aborigines view death in a community as something that should not be spoken about, let alone re-created in film as it would have reignited painful memories for the families of the dead youths.
While the film makers eventually did make some effort to consult with the local aboriginal community and the relevant families involved, it was felt however, that not enough time was given over to the community to digest and respond further - while the film makers wanted to be seen to be doing something it was really a case of them doing too little, too late. Understandably, therefore, many in the aboriginal community, were left feeling frustrated and angry.
If seen from the local aboriginal community perspective then, the film maker’s were not just naive to these events but there actions bordered on insensitivity to the protocols of ‘traditional practice’, in first seeking approval from the dead youths families.
It’s fair to say that Aboriginal stories are in deference still being appropriated without proper consultation by white artists. Is this film an example of that? I think it depends who holds the purse strings; one thing is clear, there needs to be more funding so that aboriginals can make their films themselves.
A point not lost by Moreton when she remarked, “In order to make this an aboriginal story it would have to be made as a different film altogether – and potentially it could have been.”
The film begins as a wry football comedy. It opens with two characters already mates sitting together in the dilapidated shed of the red dirt football field, commiserating over the ineffectiveness of the team coach, Arks, so named because he’s always ‘arksing’ questions of his players. His locker room pep talks sends his players forth totally confused but highly amused.
The film ends with Blacky and Clarence sitting on the railing at the end of the jetty. The camera hovers for Several lingering seconds, they hold hands, and then jump off into the water below. It’s a symbolic moment. There’s nothing for them in their community anymore, it’s time for them to move on.
Despite the above criticisms, Gwynne along with the film director, Paul Goldman, have come up with a screen play which to be quite frank, is as hard hitting as it gets. As mentioned at the begining of this review, it’s not just a study about football and what it means to the fishing town it’s also a study of racial tension, “family conflicts and inter racial ferment.”
The film does well to capture many of these simmering conflicts between white Australian towns people and aboriginals. Gritty scenes give way to a scripted dialogue which has been carefully peppered with expletives. It should be clear from this that the film is intended for a mature audience 15 years and upwards.
This film belongs to the genre of coming-of-age into manhood. Blacky’s central challenge in the film is to reaffirm his masculinity, which he does through his relationship with Clarence. By standing up to his father after being called a ‘gutless wonder’ a line is drawn between the two.
Clarence presence throughout the film is central to the story. When Blacky’s father Bob, refers to her as a, ‘..slut’ in Blacky’s bedroom, Clarence finds the courage to stand up, and stand her ground; throughout this scene she shows dignity and silent resistance. And, it shows how both Blacky and Clarence are mentally strong in being able to deal with Blacky’s racist father.
‘australian rules’ was released with the slogan ‘live by the rules play by the rules’. There is, however, an almost apartheid divide between black [Nunga] and white [Goonya] communities. The film is not without irony: half the football team is made up of aboriginal’s and yet the white youths remain reluctant to mix with aborigines out side of football - without the aborigines, this fishing town would not have a football team!
In the film Blacky is seen to over step the dividing line and breaks with the unwritten rules which ultimately sees him pitted against his abusive father.
The film does not shirk. There are instances involving racially charged prejudice and bigotry; we get to see who mixes with whom in this small fishing town community whilst observing the rules that differ between families and amongst elders. We hear but do not see a disturbing case of domestic abuse within Black’s household.
The narrative structure of the film certainly makes this a non-Indigenous film in that it is a white protagonists story with the indigenous characters peripheral to Blacky’s emotional journey.
I just wonder how this film would have faired if the script had called for the central character to be played by an aboriginal?
While other critics who have welcomed the film, saying the story takes a strong anti-racist stance they also see it for its stark portrayal of racism and intolerance towards aboriginals.
This film in my view should also be seen within the broader framework of the reconciliation debate that was occurring in Australia between whites and aboriginals around 200l and since.
It’s a good film with an equally good, strong cast. I only hope a wider overseas audience gets the chance to see this film because of the relevance it has to us all.
Sources for this review, found on the internet:
Media Information Kit for ‘australian rules’
Article by Peter Ellingsen for the Melbourne Age, Saturday Extra Section on 10/08/2002.
Study Guide of ‘australian rules’ & A feature film for Secondary and Tertiary students by Libby Tudball Lecturer in Education, Faculty of Education, Monash University.
‘australian rules’ A comparative review by Anita Jetnikoff for Australian Screen Education (2003)
Articles by Paul Byrnes and Romaine Moreton in National Film and Sound Archive of Australia[NFSA]
Review by David Rooney of ‘australian rules’ in Variety
Review of ‘australian rules’ in The Sydney Morning Herald.