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There are incredibly serious issues at stake in today’s Australia, but there’s no reason why we can’t tackle them with humour. If we laugh together as a nation, we’ll bridge that abyss, filmmaker Richard Frankland tells Andrew L. Urban after the world premiere of Frankland’s Stone Bros at the 2009 Dungog Film Festival.

For a man with serious socio-political intent, Richard Frankland is a very funny man. He loves to laugh his infectious laugh, which simmers just below the surface, and his sense of humour seems to range from the very broad to the very sophisticated. So the only surprise about his hilarious feature film, Stone Bros, is that it’s taken so long to come out of his creative burner.

“I looked back at some of my speeches and films over the years,” he says, “and realised that I had been focusing on the cultural abyss between black and white Australia – and we’d tried all sorts of approaches, but what we hadn’t tried before was comedy.”

We’re sitting in a bare room above the Dungog hardware store, part of an unused apartment where the 2009 Dungog Film Festival set up its base camp. Richard sits on a wicker chair opposite, oozing enthusiasm. Little wonder, since the night before, the world premiere of Stone Bros at the festival had been greeted with whoops of encouragement and thunderous applause. And that was after all the laughter died down.

"to tell heavy stories you can use comedy"

Yet Richard says he wanted to tell “a heavy story …” But as he had learnt from Wal Saunders, who set up the Indigenous branch of what was then the Australian Film Commission (now Screen Australia), to tell heavy stories you can use comedy.

In one scene, a kangaroo carcass is used after a live kangaroo “broke its contract and skipped off,” recalls. Richard. He improvised by having the art department position the kangaroo with its short forearms crossed in front of it for comic effect. (You’ll have to see the film to know why it was so funny.) In another moment, a scene ends with a close up of a goanna having a piss – but not as nature intended. Again, you’ll have to see the film; but what amuses Richard most is how people who are not familiar with the goanna’s natural mechanisms won’t understand why the rest of the audience is roaring with laughter.

Perhaps the most memorable of the magic realism scattered throughout the film is the snappy little dog whose eyes glow with evil intent at one point, and in another scene bobs up and down on a trampoline. “That’s actually based on reality,” says Richard. “That’s how my auntie’s dog escaped from the backyard once …”

But don’t get the wrong idea; Stone Bros is not an animal movie. City based Eddie, sets off to reconnect with his blackfella roots by taking a sacred stone back to his hometown. But when wild-boy Charlie forces himself along for the ride, Eddie's spiritual journey takes a sharp turn off-track and becomes a riotous trip through outback Australia as the boys are forced to contend with a self-obsessed Italian rock God, that possessed dog and a host of other eccentric characters along the way, including an Aboriginal drag queen. Aboriginal culture and character are treated with the same irreverence as white folks often treat their film characters. And some of the observation is rooted in serious, dramatic themes. “It’s four journeys that lead the characters to discoveries about themselves,” says Richard.

There are “incredibly serious issues at stake in today’s Australia,” he says, “but there’s no reason why we can’t tackle them with humour. If we laugh together as a nation, we’ll bridge that abyss.” As Richard’s life rule says “You can’t choose the life path you’ve been given, but you can choose how you conduct yourself.”

"the licence to laugh with indigenous Australia"

Richard was in seventh heaven at the end of the world premiere, as the 500 seat cinema was full to capacity and all laughing at his film. “That laughter meant they claimed it as their own,” he says with pride and hope.

“Will Australia own the film, d’you think?” he asks me leaning forward. Because if it does, it will own it and embrace all that goes with it, including the licence to laugh with indigenous Australia – at all of ourselves.

Published September 24, 2009

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Richard Frankland
(Photo by Andrew L. Urban)


... on set

Stone Bros

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