Richard Frankland is an Aboriginal activist, musician, playwright, and an AFI winning director of short film No Way to Forget. His latest is the indigenous comedy Stone Bros., which tells the story of two young men finding their true selves and their culture during a road trip. The following is a conversation with Richard about the film. Enjoy!
What are the origins of Stone Bros?
Some 15 years ago, maybe a little longer, there was some 10,000 hours of film footage at the Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, with over 90% of it being written, produced, and directed by non-Aboriginal people. So it was an interpretation of us from another culture. Some of the films were brilliant and some weren’t, which of course is what happens.
My brother Walter Saunders began the Australian Film Commission Indigenous Branch, which at that time was headed up by Cathy Robinson, who gave great support to the concept. They called out for scripts and 76 people replied, 10 were successful, and from that Warrick Thornton (Samson and Delilah) and I were successful, along with 4 others.
Around that time I made a film called No Way to Forget, which was at Cannes and won a few AFI awards. But this comedy began because I started to see that we needed to get into people’s lounge rooms, and I wanted to humanize what had been dehumanized, meaning Aboriginal people.
I started having a few beers and telling mates stories about comedies, and about comedic events that I had come across, and there was always a lot of giggling and laughing.
I had written two drafts of Stone Bros. with my business partner John Foss, who applied for funding from Film Victoria. I then took a film called The Cross into Media World, where (owners) John Tatoulis, Colin South, and Ross Hutchens asked me “do you have a comedy?” And I said yeah, and that was the beginning of it.
The films main characters, Eddie and Charlie, undergo a spiritual journey. Do you believe that people from all cultures will have to embark on their own spiritual journey at some point in their lives?
Absolutely! Every young person, and people of my age group, go through a series of journeys. You can’t choose your life path, but you can choose how you conduct yourself on it. Sometimes we turn a blind eye to what’s laid at our feet, and other times we dive in. I’m one of those dive in fellas.
I think if we look at Charlie and Eddie, they sort of meander along a bit: Eddie is chasing the journey, and Charlie is trying to avoid it. In Eddie’s case I think he goes along and he wants to have that journey, but maybe he’s looking too hard.
Well that is the thing about Eddie, isn’t it? He wants to go back home and find who he is...
He wants to be a contributor to the world and not a problem.
Which is what Charlie is...
Charlie is the problem (laughs)! More so to himself. But that is what’s beautiful about the story...and I’m not sure if I saw it when I was writing it...Charlie’s inaction, and then hard learned lesson, ends up teaching Eddie as well. He teaches Eddie about forgiveness. Ultimately, it is a love story in some ways...learn it and love it in a different way, than over a beer glass... or a joint butt, I should say (laughs)!
Racism between light and dark skinned Aboriginals is featured. What in your opinion is the source of that discrimination?
Well, discrimination, generally speaking, is a competitive type of thing, that’s about if you’re at the bottom rung of the ladder, you want to be above someone else.
So there is a thing in indigenous communities called ‘lateral violence’, which is epidemic around the world. It is when we gossip and put each other down, and use all sorts of tools to do that. We use our families, organisations... and it’s a product of colonisation. The skin colour thing comes from that.
You know, we all do it. I have encountered incredible discrimination in this country. On the other hand, though, I have encountered great love and respect, which I am very grateful for.
The dream sequence that Eddie has in the film, I took as Eddie being envious of Charlie. Would that be an accurate observation?
Yeah, Eddie was envious of Charlie, absolutely. You are right on the money. In another way he wanted the perfect world, where in his mind the perfect world would be where Aboriginal people were honoured, if you like.
(But) that is not the perfect world. The perfect world would be a place where all men and women are equal and that what’s honoured is the heritage and the fact that we are the oldest living culture in the world.
Really, (the dream) makes a statement about the country, as well as Eddie. It is really a complex area. I would say that it’s something which is about pointing the finger at our inaction as a country.
We actually filmed that before the national apology, and everyone was searching for their own interpretation...what’s beautiful about that sequence is that people take away a multitude of meanings. And I think the knowledge of that very interpretation will grow. It will be an individual thing; it will be a collective thing; it will be...he walks through a super market named Tucker Mart! And there is all busher tucker there!
So it is our culture which is present, and as you would know a lot of indigenous culture is invisible, and what we do see is the noble savage, or the angry activist, or the people with massive dysfunctional problems. In (Eddie’s) dream world there is none of that, it is this perfect world where he is sought after, wanted, and needed...
And is offered the eldest daughter from a white family...
Charlie has quite the self destructive personality. Is it a gamble to have such a character be the main source of comedic inspiration?
All the time. In fact, doing a comedy is a gamble. The safe bet for Aboriginal people would be to make films which are not funny, and stick to the heavy (dramatic) genre.
And, while those films are needed, we’re also breaking a glass ceiling by saying, “Hold on: We’re funny.” We are humanising what has been dehumanised. We are planting a seed in Australia that says, “Look out, there is gonna be a horror film!”, and “Look out, there is gonna be an indigenous drama that is not based on social circumstance of a race, but social circumstance of an individual”. All of these things will come to the fore.
Do you think using comedy to speak about these controversial issues is more effective than making it overtly serious?
I think they are all effective. Stone Bros. is in the right place at the right time, and there is the right attitude in Australia. In fact, I had the great honour of sitting there in how many screenings now...I can’t recall because there has been so many...but I’ve sat with an all white audience of 500 people, and I made a speech and there was a bit of negative body language when I walked off, and within 10 min people were roaring with laughter. 20 min, slapping each other. Within 30 min, turning around and smiling at me.
If anything I have seen audiences that have been so sensitized to political correctness that they were not sure where to laugh. But all you need is one person to crack and off they go.
I am so pleased that it’s a testimony to Australia, to us as a nation, on how we are maturing. Not saying that the problems are over at all, but saying that it’s a great testimony to Australia that we’ve had taken that step.
Peter Phelps’ character really taps into that unseen spiritual element in Aboriginal culture. Does his character represent a misunderstanding and exploitation of that part of your culture?
Absolutely! It says that there are better ways to appropriate culture.
Aboriginal people, when we were placed in missions, we were not allowed to speak our language or practice our culture. In fact, in some places, it was an almost jail-able offense. If you had what they called ‘dog tags’, which was a piece of paper that said you could leave the mission, you were not allowed to mix with your family or anyone else. You were not allowed to go to rituals or ceremony. You had to be a white person.
What the Phelps character does is flip that all around, and it throws the challenge to those of us, both black and white, who have in mind that there is the iconic noble savage. The whole film is about saying these guys are just normal guys. They happen to be indigenous, and the story line happens to have cultural appendages.
Final question. What is the next step in the fight to have the AFC change the films MA rating?
We’re considering going to the court and taking legal action. We’ve had a phenomenal amount of support from other filmmakers, who have been through similar things. We’ve had a phenomenal amount of support from the general public. Every indigenous person I have spoken to, including very high profile people, think that there has been a crucial mistake made during both reviews.
Indigenous people, and I am talking professors, doctors, lawyers, and in fact high court judge who is not indigenous, have all said that accessibility to this film will save lives.
I think there has been a narrow minded view by the board. Either the guidelines are wrong or the committee is wrong. So there has been a terrible mistake, and my advice is that other filmmakers should be very careful, particularly if there film is about...this film is a comedy, but it is also a film that can be viewed as something people can learn from.
For the life of me I cannot work it out. Whether it’s me, or whether they are incompetent, or whether the guidelines are incompetent, I don’t know. But I forgive them. I won’t forget, and it doesn’t mean that I don’t disagree with them. But I think this is a moment they will be forever justifying to themselves, individually and collectively. They may do with their action irreparable damage to some young people around this country.
Stone Bros. will be released on the 24th of September through the Australian Film Syndicate