Dir: Paul Goldman. Australia. 2002. 98mins.
The Australian success of Phillip Noyce's Rabbit-Proof Fence has opened distribution doors previously locked to depictions of Aboriginal issues and racial conflict. In its wake comes Australian Rules, a biting reminder of the distance that still exists between white and indigenous communities in modern Australia. Yet it still possesses enough genuine humour and sporting excitement to attract bigger than average audiences when it reaches the local arthouse circuit on Aug 29. The feature also has considerable international potential: sales agent Beyond Films will be pushing it at Cannes in a couple of weeks, when this debut feature receives its market premiere.
The title refers not only to the Aussie-invented leap-and-kick football code but also to the unspoken rules governing race and family issues in rural areas of the country. Although racial aspects of the production continue to raise a storm - the recreation of actual events caused offence to an aboriginal community near the film's location - it's the powerful father/son clash that forms the backbone of this authentic drama. The film aroused anger at the Adelaide Film festival in March, when at least one participant called for a moratorium on non-indigenous directors making features about Aboriginal people.
The white family central to the story live a subsistence-level existence at rundown Prospect Bay and are (unhelpfully) called the Blacks. Sullen Dad (Westaway) is a hard-working fisherman; long-suffering Mum (Ireland) washes and cooks all day, shepherding her five kids from the explosive tempers of her abusing husband. Sensitive eldest son Gary 'Blacky' Black (Phillips) plays for the town's footy team, currently riding high in a regional competition thanks mainly to the majority participation of otherwise segregated aboriginal youths. Chief among these is Dumby Red (Carroll), the easy-going top goal kicker who is also attracting the attention of big city professional teams.
As the grand final beckons, the town's white establishment swallows its racist inclinations and gets behind their team, even when one of the key black players is arrested on suspicion of local robberies and Gary is grudgingly promoted beyond his sporting capabilities. But after the stirringly staged final, racial tensions explode and tragedy ensues, with Gary balancing contradictory feelings towards his black friends, including Dumby's alluring sister Clarence (Flanagan) and forced to deal with the brutal opposition of his dangerous father. "Whose side are you on'" is the challenging question for both Gary and the audience.
All this is delivered with confident panache by debut director Goldman from an autobiographically-inclined novel and screenplay by Phillip Gwynne. The ramshackle bayside setting is suitably bleak and unlovely, the presentation of the white community grimly primordial. Hope is restricted to the dangerous pairing of white Blacky and black Clarence: both these attractive, sensitive young actors make their mark. The screenplay is alive with rough humour and vivid characterisation, although a rushed epilogue pushes a 'happy ending' insultingly at odds with the realities of Australian social attitudes otherwise so sharply and unsparingly revealed.
Prod co: Tidy Town Pictures
Aust/NZ dist: Palace Films
Int'l sales: Beyond Films
Prod: Mark Lazarus
Scr: Phillip Gwynn and Paul Goldman, adapted from the novel 'Deadly, Unna'' by Phillip Gwynn
Cinematographer: Mandy Walker
Prod des: Steven Jones-Evans
Ed: Stephen Evans
Music: Mick Harvey
Main cast: Nathan Phillips, Simon Westaway, Celia Ireland, Luke Carroll, Lisa Flanagan