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Bran Nue Dae (1991)


This documentary by Tom Zubrycki traces the development and production of the successful stage musical Bran Nue Dae. The writer of the play, Jimmy Chi, talks about how his experiences and education led to his writing of the semi-autobiographical musical. Selections from the musical are intercut with interviews and historical footage.

Curator’s notes

Bran Nue Dae is one of two documentaries that Zubrycki made in the culturally diverse city of Broome, in the remote north of Western Australia where Asian and Indigenous cultural exchange has occurred for hundreds of years. His film Lord of the Bush, made the previous year, looked at entrepreneur Alastair McAlpine’s plans to develop the region and the community’s divided responses to his plans. McAlpine funded the first rehearsal of Jimmy Chi’s musical Bran Nue Dae and this film looks at Chi’s experience.

Indigenous Australian Jimmy Chi, whose heritage is also Japanese, Chinese and Scottish, talks frankly about his upbringing, his life at boarding school in Perth, his schizophrenia, university days and the influence of his mixed-race birth. Friend and narrator of the film, Stephen Albert, says that the musical Bran Nue Dae, was ‘conceived, developed and produced by Aboriginal people’ which is why it is such a significant piece of theatre. When first staged, the musical was very successful because it created identifiable characters, combined comedy, strong lyrics, enjoyable melodies and drew on Indigenous spirituality and Broome’s German missionary history.

Tom Zubrycki uses generous segments from the filmed stage-play which become the musical of the film. Historical footage and interviews with Chi and other community members are incorporated to create a celebration of Bran Nue Dae and its creators.

Secondary curator’s notes

by Romaine Moreton

‘You can only write about what you know’ says Jimmy Chi in this documentary about the production of Bran Nue Dae, the stage play. Chi takes us on a semi-autobiographical journey based on his childhood experience, which is the basis for Bran Nue Dae. The play is considered a classic in Indigenous theatre. The beauty of this documentary is that it shows the preparation for the stage play, with Chi preparing the actors for the parts based on this lived experience.

The footage of the Indigenous cast is in cultural contrast to the colonial iconography such as the Queen and religious symbols projected within the space of the theatre, giving Bran Nue Dae a powerful dramatic tension. Bran Nue Dae is a story about religion, sexuality and Chi’s vision to make the play a reality. Chi, diagnosed with schizophrenia, dreamt of producing a play that incorporated the songs he penned, and that are performed in the play by the band Kuckles. Bran Nue Dae, the documentary, shows a cast that have since become important figures in the Indigenous arts, across the genres of theatre, film and music.