Australian Screen

Australia’s audiovisual heritage online

Bran Nue Dae (1991)

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clip Growing up Aboriginal education content clip 1

Original classification rating: PG. This clip chosen to be G

Clip description

Actor Stephen Albert and writer Jimmy Chi, the author of the musical play Bran Nue Dae, talk about childhood, education and identity, intercut with one of the musical numbers from the production, historical footage and archival photographs.

Curator’s notes

The incorporation of historical footage and photographs in this clip helps to contextualise Chi’s cultural heritage and his experience growing up influenced by the Catholic Church with Broome’s missionary and pearl diving past, together with its cultural diversity.

This clip is interspersed with a song from the play itself. The song, ‘Light a Light’, is ostensibly a duet – the two lead singers are joined by a chorus – sung to a slow waltz beat with acoustic guitar and percussion. The song has country and western and gospel musical influences. The slow tempo suitably matches the sentiment of the lyrics and the heartwarming ‘conversation’ between the boy and the girl.

Curiously, while the song is part of a play that deals specifically with the Aboriginal experience, the song’s central refrain, ‘light a light, leave it in the window’, actually references an American practice that dates back to colonial times. At the time, American homes were long distances apart and the sight of a candle in a window was a sign for visitors. Even earlier, in the 12th century, Irish Catholics would leave a candle in the window hoping for a priest to visit. ‘Light a light’, however, is only using the general symbolism that a light in a window is a sign of welcome, and in this case, ‘welcome home’. So it is an effective symbol in the storyline of Bran Nue Dae.

Teacher’s notes

provided by The Le@rning FederationEducation Services Australia

This clip shows playwright and musician Jimmy Chi and actor Stephen Albert talking about attending a mission school near Broome in Western Australia, and being separated from family to attend school in Perth. Chi also describes his semi-autobiographical musical Bran Nue Dae. Albert, who grew up with Chi and performed in the musical, narrates the clip which includes an excerpt from the stage production of Bran Nue Dae, photographs of Chi as a boy and archival footage showing Indigenous Australian children and a nun in a mission schoolyard, and Indigenous families at an airstrip.

Educational value points

  • The clip provides an excerpt from the stage production of Bran Nue Dae, the first musical written and performed by Indigenous Australians. It premiered in 1990 at the Festival of Perth and toured nationally, setting record theatre attendances. It revolves around a young Indigenous boy who runs away from school in the city and journeys home to Lombadina near Broome. The music in the play is a hybrid mix of country and western, reggae, gospel, blues and Indigenous chants, including Indigenous Australian song cycles used on overland journeys.
  • Chi is shown explaining what he hoped to achieve through the musical. Bran Nue Dae is a protest against the treatment of Indigenous Australians, highlighting the injustices of the mission system, the negative outcomes of assimilation and the loss of traditional country. For Chi, Indigenous culture is not something that belongs in the past, but something that is constantly evolving. While Chi intended that Bran Nue Dae confront non-Indigenous audiences, it also encourages Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians to reach a common understanding, and to celebrate the resilience of Indigenous peoples.
  • The clip refers to the Australian Government’s policy of assimilation at the time Chi and Albert were growing up. In the late 1930s the Government’s policies on protection and segregation of Indigenous Australians were replaced by a policy of assimilation that sought to absorb Indigenous Australians into 'white’ society. Education was seen as a key to assimilation and many Indigenous children were separated from their families to receive an education. While this attempt to absorb Indigenous Australians into mainstream society provided opportunities it also denied children access to their families and their culture.
  • Footage of a mission school is included. Missions were initially set up in the 1810s, often by the clergy, to house and educate Indigenous Australians and convert them to Christianity. Children were taught at a mission school in English by nuns and priests using a curriculum derived from England. Many Indigenous Australians at these missions experienced forced confinement, the imposition of strict Christian observance, separation from and removal of their children, the breakdown of traditional values and the banning of their languages and cultural practices.
  • Separation from family had severe effects on Indigenous children. The narrator in this clip, Stephen Albert, refers to the loneliness that he and Chi experienced while at school in Perth. In Indigenous Australian cultures an individual’s identity is based on family, kinship ties and a connection to the land where the person was born. Separation from family proved devastating for many children and had lasting emotional consequences. Chi, who is a diagnosed schizophrenic, attributes his condition to cultural dislocation. Albert says that, as the first of his people to go to university, Chi set an inspiring example.
  • Like the boy in Bran Nue Dae, Chi grew up near Broome and was educated in a mission school before being sent to further his education in Perth. He studied engineering at university, but returned to Broome where he formed a band called Kuckles, which collaborated on the composition and production of Bran Nue Dae. Chi is also the author of the play Corrugation Road (1996), and in 1997 received the Australia Council’s prestigious Red Ochre Award.
  • The clip illustrates the multicultural nature of Broome. Chi’s mother was of Scottish and Indigenous Australian descent, while his father was of Chinese and Japanese origin. Broome’s pearling industry attracted a workforce that included Indigenous Australians as well as Japanese, Chinese, Filipino and Malaysian divers. Soon after the town was established, the Catholic Church set up missions at Beagle Bay and Lombadina that were mainly run by an order of Pallotine Fathers from Germany and the Sisters of St John from Ireland. Chi feels that Broome’s rich and diverse musical tradition, which he draws on in his musical, is a legacy of the crosscultural interaction in Broome.

This clip starts approximately 10 minutes into the documentary.

The clip features an interview with Stephen Albert, actor, and Jimmy Chi, author of the musical play Bran Nue Dae. The interviews are intercut with musical numbers from a theatre production, historical footage and archival photographs.

City of Broome landscape shot, photographi of Jimi’s parents, school yard with nuns. Stephen outside a house.

Narrator The play is drawn from Jimmy’s own story, which also reflects mine and others from Broome. Jimmy was born in 1948 of a Japanese-Chinese father and Aboriginal-Scottish mother. Like most of us, he was educated at a Catholic school by a group of Irish nuns and German priests.

Zoom in of Jimi’s school photograph as a young child. Cuts to a theatre production of Bran Nue Dae With two leads with cast walking onto stage.

Stephen Albert, actor We thought, um, we’d either be pearl divers or whatever, because that was the only job that was going on, or stockmen. Someone like us, like Jimmy and myself, well, we thought we was going to be priests, you know. Because we were that holy back then.

Narrator At the age of 12, everything changed for Jimmy. He was handpicked by the nuns to continue his schooling in Perth, and I followed him two years later. For both of us, it was going to mean a long separation from friends and family.

Cast (singing) I’m tired of dreaming alone, I’m coming home to you.

Jimi Chi is interviewed sitting in a city park. Cuts back to full cast in theatre production of Bran Nue Dae.

Jimmy Chi The play is a parable. It’s a wonderful thing. It says the naked truth is ugly. But when he’s dressed in the fine clothes of the parable, then he becomes acceptable. And Aboriginal people are, you know, not exactly sort of liked or – let’s face it, they’re not liked. And, um, it’s an Aboriginal play. It’s the Aboriginal speciality, saying ‘This is our truth to you. For you guys to look at.’

Cast (singing) I’m coming back, back home to you. I’m coming back, back home to you.

Images of people waiting at a remote airport, panning shot of Catholic school photograph.

Narrator We stayed at Rossmoyne, a Catholic hostel for Aboriginal students run by German priests. The major aim of Rossmoyne was to educate and train Aborigines to be able to get jobs in the wider white society. It all fitted neatly into the government’s assimilation policy at that time.

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  • You may download materials for your personal use or for non-commercial educational purposes, but you must not publish them elsewhere or redistribute clips in any way.
  • You may embed the clip for non-commercial educational purposes including for use on a school intranet site or a school resource catalogue.
  • The National Film and Sound Archive’s permission must be sought to amend any information in the materials, unless otherwise stated in notices throughout the Site.

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