May 4, 2013

Yolngu Boy: Ancestral Homoeroticism

Many traditional cultures of aboriginal Australia recognized and even institutionalized same-sex practice, making it a rite of passage into manhood.  But homophobic Western religious and psychiatric discourses suppressed the exuberance of same-sex practice, leaving only a contempt of Western gay identity. And maybe some subtexts.

In Yolngu Boy (2001), Lorrpu (Sebbe Pilakui, left), Milika (Nathan Daniels), and Botj (Sean Mununggur) are growing up in Arnhem Land.  Although they have all adopted white-Christian civilization, listening to rap music and playing soccer, Lorrpu and Milika still revere the traditions of their ancestors, and at age 15 they have been chosen by tribal leader Dawu to be initiated into manhood.

Botj, whose rage against white civilization causes him to commit petty crimes, is excluded from the secret rituals.  He returns after three months in prison, and talks the others  into breaking into a community store for cigarettes.  Then, while high on gasoline fumes, he commits an act of arson.

Determined to save him, Lorrpu talks him into crossing Arnhem Land to Darwin, 300 miles away, to argue his case with Dawu. Milika refuses to go, but Lorrpu evokes their llifelong friendship and convinces him.

Most of the movie involves their perilous trek across the wilderness, where they must draw upon traditional skills and modern resourcefulness.  Their friendship strengthens.  There are hugs and glistening muscles, and the spirit of the crocodile binds them together.

But when they arrive in Darwin, Dawu is not convinced.  Botj has sex with a girl -- emblematic of his fall from grace?  Then the three boys share a hotel room (with sex implied), but when Lorrpu awakens, Botj has run off.  He commits suicide by jumping off a bridge.  His friends could not save him.

Actors Sean and Nathan have heterosexist bios on the official Yolngu Boy website, something on the line of: "he likes movies, music, and girls -- but not in that order." But Sebbe Pilakui's bio doesn't mention girls, noting only that he felt a "strong kinship" with Nathan from the beginning.  Maybe there's some ancestral homoeroticism left.

The movie is available online at youtube.