Synopsis of Yolngu Boy

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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 (1). 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.

Yolngu Boy begins in flashback mode, with three young Aboriginal boys - Lorrpu (John Sebastian Pilakui), Botj (Sean Mununggurr) and Milika (Nathan Daniels) - gallantly and happily striding through a river at low tide pointing their spears before them, while a voice-over, belonging to Lorrpu, reminisces about "three boys . one dream". The dream, which the older Lorrpu - the one most interested in ensuring the boys embrace their Aboriginal past - reminisces, is that of the three becoming great hunters like their forefathers.

The film then jumps forward to the present day - Lorrpu's flashback swiftly and comically revealed as a fantasised, idyllic Aboriginal past, interrupted by the present-day urging of Milika to join him to play football. Although the film acknowledges this past, as this flashback shows, it is also realistic...
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