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 Seriously Funny: an interview with Richard J. Frankland, director of Stone Bros.

 

By Rochelle Siemienowicz
September 2009

 

Stoner comedies are a uniquely silly and outrageously politically incorrect genre. Think of Cheech and Chong, or the Hollywood films Harold and Kumar go to White Castle and Pineapple Express. Put a couple of young men together, usually in a car, with a whole lot of cannabis and laugh as you watch the adventure unfold, complete with close brushes with the law, fantastical hallucinations and of course stupendous attacks of the munchies. Now imagine that the two blokes in the car, smoking their 187 scoobies, are Aboriginal and that they’re travelling from Perth to Kalgoorlie to return some sacred rocks. Now that’s outrageous. Stone Bros. may very well be the most radical and subversive Australian film of the year – and there’s nothing serious about it at all.

 

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Luke Carroll with Director

Richard J. Frankland

Writer/director Richard J. Frankland is no stranger to the serious side of indigenous issues. A proud Gunditjmara man from the Western Districts of Victoria, he worked as a Field Officer during the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths, which led to his appearance as a presenter in the award winning documentary Who Killed Malcolm Smith (1993). He’s written, directed and produced numerous documentary projects with an activist bent, including the AFI Award winning films No Way to Forget (1996) and After Mabo (1998), and the acclaimed short film Harry’s War (1999). In addition to his other roles as playwright, musician and academic, Frankland has also built up an impressive career directing television episodes of The Circuit, Double Trouble and Blue Heelers.

 

For a serious man who’s seen the very worst things that can happen within Australian society, Frankland has chosen to make a light and frothy first feature, but as he says, laughter is often the best medicine and the best way to build a bridge between two cultures. Here we talk to him about a film that he hopes will make its audience ‘pee their pants’ with laughter.

 

AFI: It must be very satisfying to see a cinema full of people laughing at a comedy you’ve made.


Richard Frankland: Yes! Particularly from my cultural background because to hear 500 non-indigenous people laughing with us not at us was just a real testimony to where we’ve grown as a country, or how we’re growing.


AFI: This is the first indigenous comedy feature film. Why do you think there haven’t been more comedies?


RF: Essentially we’ve been in a situation where in the early 1990s there were some 10,000 hours of film footage with Aboriginal content or subject matter, and over 90 per cent of that was written, directed and produced by non-indigenous people. So Wal Saunders began the Australian Film Commission’s Indigenous Branch in 1993, with the support of Cathy Robinson who was the then CEO. And it went through the roof. That was the renaissance in my opinion of indigenous filmmaking. There have been individuals before who’ve stepped out, but all of a sudden both Warwick Thornton and I did that first [mentored] program, Sand to Celluloid, and now here we are doing feature films. So I think both Cathy and Wal deserve to be commended for what they did. It was absolutely courageous and so needed. It essentially changed the cultural landscape of Australia.

 

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Stone Bros movie still

AFI: So are we about to have a whole bunch of indigenous filmmakers coming through now?


RF: Absolutely. It’s going to be fantastic. I’m really excited. It’s a long time coming, but now it’s coming and nothing can really stop it now.


AFI: It’s an amazing year for indigenous feature filmmaking. Warwick Thornton’s Samson & Delilah, and Rachel Perkins’ upcoming musical Bran Nue Dae, and your stoner comedy.


RF: I know, it’s grouse isn’t it?! (laughs) Awesome.


AFI: There haven’t actually been very many other indigenous-directed feature films that have been released…


RF: Let’s see. Ivan Sen’s Beneath Clouds. Rachel Perkins Radiance. Tracey Moffat’s Bedevil.. .  I guess what’s happening now is it’s a bit similar to the renaissance of women filmmakers in the 70s and 80s isn’t it? Women stood up. I thought that was great. Just the fact of minority groups within the industry is amazing. What will it mean for other minority groups that we have indigenous filmmakers?


AFI:  You’ve had a long and varied career in film and TV. How did you come to be in this industry?


RF: I made two small films before I realised that they were films. I thought they were just projects. And then the film Who Killed Malcolm Smith was made, about when I used to investigate deaths in custody. And then John Foss needed a hand with a film Songlines, about Aboriginal music. And that was it. We were off and running.


AFI: So as a young fella, what was making films and television programs something you ever imagined doing?


RF: Well, when I was investigating deaths in custody I found out what was killing my mob and it wasn’t so much the individuals, as the attitudes. A thing called the Australian psyche. I wanted to get into people’s lounge rooms so I started pushing my music and making films and plays, and I realised that there are a lot of good people out there who just didn’t know. And it’s not because they were ignorant or bad people. They just didn’t know because at that time material about indigenous Australians wasn’t easily attainable, and we were portrayed as the undifferentiated ‘other’, a problem, as opposed to people with a problem. I wanted to stress that that wasn’t the case. I remember coming home from a particular case, with a girl that had self-mutilated, and driving through Melbourne in the early hours of the morning thinking ‘why don’t people know about this? Why don’t they know about this pain?’ And so it became a matter of voice for me, a matter of trying to tell these stories to humanise what had been dehumanised and in recent years I learnt what a wonderful tool comedy is.


AFI: Is there a particular kind of humour that comes out of the indigenous experience, however varied that may be?

 

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Leon Burchill and Luke Carroll

RF: Absolutely. There’s a humour that comes out of any oppressed group that can laugh. But I think that our mob are particularly able to laugh in a laconic refreshing way that’s so old and yet so new, about the strangeness of things. I mean I see non Aboriginal people come into my world all the time. They get bruised on the way in and bruised while they’re in there. And bruised but laughing. And leave with the most beautiful memorable scars on their souls.
AFI: What do you mean by bruised?


RF: Shocked, by what they learn. Shocked. ‘How is this happening in our country? Why aren’t there 20 million people marching in the streets? Why can’t we claim first Australians as our own, as part of our national cultural landscape?’ And that’s the hope of this film that we fill in and build a bridge over that cultural abyss, maybe one or two more rungs, maybe one or two more shovel loads. I want white Australians to own this film, to be walking down the street maybe backpacking in New York, and see it being advertised, and say ‘that’s one of ours’, not ‘that’s an Aboriginal film from Australia.’ Instead, for them to say, ‘that’s one of ours.’


AFI: One of the things about this film is that it’s not about making white Australians feel guilty. It’s not about that at all.


RF: It’s just about two young fellas who’ve got a job to do, and who end up in a very funny situation!


AFI: It must have been great fun to make it.


RF: Oh yes, I had 70 people to torture and tell my same jokes to every day. It was great. About seven weeks of it. Every day flowed into one because we were having so much fun, laughing and giggling and solving problems together as they come up in a film set. I’d have to create new jokes, not for the film, but jokes to play on people and watch the actors and watch how they claim the characters and then own them and then take them into places I never imagined. And watch the crew hold their breath at a sensitive moment, or a laughing moment. They were shooting and trying not to laugh. And sweating and losing weight in the sun, which I thought was fantastic. They were losing weight because it was 45 degrees sometimes, where we were shooting, from Perth to Coolgardie, Kalgoorlie and Morapoi.


AFI:  Your CV says that you do cultural awareness workshops. What does that entail?


RF: Teaching people the different loads that other cultures carry and I also work with foster children. I’m writing some academic papers on loss of places of cultural safety. I’m also working on a play for Belvoir next year. And I’m doing a film on lateral violence – a docudrama.


AFI: How do you fit it all in?


RF: I just go flat out. The first opportunity to write or do something I do it. I’ve got to admit I’m pretty tired at the moment. I’ve got Sunday off so…I get to spend some down time. I’ll be in the Western Districts of Victoria on the coast. My traditional country, which is where I live with my family when I’m not travelling. My daughter got to catch her first fish where 1500 generations of her grandmothers caught her first fish, and my son got to catch his first eel, where 1500 generations of his grandfathers caught their first eel. So that’s important. That’s forever stuff.


AFI: Are there any plans to take Stone Bros. to remote or regional communities?


RF: Absolutely. That’s part of the plan. I want to take it out there and get it into communities, black and white to try and get comedies out there, so more people are telling funny stories. And the more we laugh, well we’ll be too busy laughing to hate each other.

 


 

Stone Bros. is in national release from 24 September.


To find out more about the film and see a trailer, visit the Stone Bros. website: http://www.stonebrosmovie.com.au/

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