New voices emerge in a slew of Australian films

SYDNEY Aboriginal films in Oz have an image problem but its one that’s about to be overturned.

Auds expect indigenous directors to tell only stories that grapple with Aboriginals’ history as an oppressed minority, but a new generation of directors is breaking with tradition, telling tales that are more comedic and irreverent.

Distributors remain cautious about the commercial prospects for aboriginal themes, but say that with careful release strategies they can be successful.

Rachel Perkins has made a musical with Ernie Dingo and Geoffrey Rush, “Bran Nue Dae,” that owes more to P.J. Hogan’s “Muriel’s Wedding” and Gillian Armstrong’s teen musical “Starstruck” than the usual documentaries about serious issues of land rights and aboriginal deaths in custody.

“A lot of audiences have assumed indigenous film is going to make them feel guilty, but one of the great hidden qualities of aboriginal culture is its flamboyance,” Perkins says.

That flair, which long ago found a voice in the cheaper-to-produce creative arenas of music and theater, is writ large in Richard Frankland’s stoner comedy “Stone Bros.,” which was warmly received at its world premiere at the Dungog Film Festival on May 28.

The dusty road movie about two blokes and the travelers they collect shows potential to appeal to a general audience. “What was so wonderful was walking into a cinema and hearing 500 white people laughing with these black fellas onscreen, not at them,” Frankland says.

“Bran Nue Dae” is the genre’s first feature-length musical, and “Stone Bros.” is Australia’s first indigenous comedy.

Warwick Thornton’s outback romance, “Samson and Delilah,” which is more stark than romantic, collected the Camera d’Or at Cannes.

A romance, a musical and a comedy released within weeks of each other is a significant feat given only four other feature-length films by aboriginal Australian directors have ever been released.

The box office success of two aboriginal stories by white directors, Phillip Noyce’s “Rabbit-Proof Fence” and Rolf de Heer’s “Ten Canoes,” has gone some way to enhance distributors’ perceptions of the prospects of indigenous subjects. Both were internationally acclaimed and achieved domestic grosses of A$7.6 million ($5.5 million) and $2.8 million respectively.

But until an indigenous director achieves multimillion dollar returns, distributors can be expected to play it safe.

Perkins, Australia’s most prolific indigenous director, is putting the finishing touches on “Bran Nue Dae” ahead of its world premiere on closing night of the Melbourne Film Festival Aug. 9. Transmission is in talks to distribute. Perkins says her rites-of-passage story about a young boy is “quite out-there.”

Palace Films was due to distribute “Stone Bros.,” but rights have shifted to low-cost digital distribution company Australian Film Syndicate.

The movie’s co-producer John Foss says securing a distribution commitment for the $2.8 million movie was difficult.

“The market has tightened up, and it’s been clear to us over the years that distributors have been unsure about indigenous films’ ability to do well,” Foss says.

Niche distributor Footprint Films opened “Samson and Delilah” on 38 screens, and grossing $1.6 million in opening first weekend, it became the most successful film ever by an indigineous helmer.

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more