Australian Rules A comparative review by Anita Jetnikoff (QUT) for Australian Screen Education. Published as: Jetnikoff, Anita (2003) Australian Rules: a comparative review. Australian Screen Education(30):36-38. The title may mislead some viewers, as this is not a film about a football code, anymore than Bend it with Beckham is about soccer. This powerful, brave and rather brutal feature is the debut of Paul Goldman, who co-wrote the screenplay with the novelist Phillip Gwynne. Both the storylines and characters from Gwynne’s awardwinning novel Deadly Unna? and its sequel Nukkin Ya, have been combined in the film, which was commissioned by South Australian Film Corporation for the Adelaide Festival of Arts 2002, and caused a furore with the local Aboriginal community. The film was screened after much deliberation over the objections against depictions of a character resembling a member of the Penninsular community. This certainly suggests collaboration with Indigenous communities could have been sought at earlier stages of the project. In my reading of the film, however, it is the white community who emerge the more brutal, bigoted and shameful. The Aboriginal community, on the other hand, represent solidarity, and sharing. The film was released and promoted by Palace, with the slogan ‘live by the rules play by the rules’. There is, however, an almost apartheid divide between the black [Nunga) and white [Goonya) communities in this film and the central character’s personal navigating between the two, means he must break unwritten rules. The film is based on aspects of two novels, the partly autobiographical novel Deadly Unna, and its sequel, Nukkin Ya, Nunga expressions for ‘Great hey’ and ‘See you later’. Both novels were easy to read and full of humour in spite of the serious subject matter of racism, interracial relationships, adolescent angst, death and revenge. The novels belong to the adolescent problem or coming-of-age genre and are being studied in secondary schools. The film has little of the novels’ lightness and the narrator’s ability to laugh at himself and his community’s foibles. This sometimes disturbing film’s tone is brutal, the landscape stark, sordid and in decay. Most of the characters occupying the saline, arid coastal town are nasty. The adult men are barflies, maggot breeders, fornicators and losers and the women are victims or sluts. This hopeless adult world offers nothing for the young in this fishing town. Viewers are invited to identify with the young, for whom hope lies in escape. The central figure of Blacky (Nathan Phillips), is an intelligent 14 year old caught between the literary world of his imagination and the literal world of his small towns’ bigotry. His mother, who encourages him to play football and to do well at school, is a battler, a victim of his father’s brutality. The dilapidated house the Black family occupy oozes poverty and neglect. These are white fringe dwellers. In the novel Blacky refers to what kind of chops the family will consume as indicative of the ‘pov metre’. They shop at the local op shop. Like many small rural Australian towns, this coastal community struggles to survive.
The black and white communities in the region are divided, separated physically by a stretch of coastline, whites at the port and blacks at the point. Even the local pub segregates the Aboriginal drinkers from the white ones. The irony is that the local football team is only viable when the Aboriginal boys come over from the point to play. The sporting fixture allows the communities to merge, but the union stops there. Blacky crosses the racial divide to befriend Dumby Red (Luke Carroll) a talented Aboriginal Australian Rules Player from the Point and to romance Dumby’s sister Clarence (Lisa Flanagan). Whereas book built up the friendship through Blacky’s doubt and hesitation about Dumby, this is not dealt with in the film. The film opens with the two characters already mates, sitting...
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