It’s not every day a multi-award-winning story written for teenagers arouses such anger and angst as the screen version of Phillip Gwynne’s novel Deadly, Unna? has in Australia. Many will remember the publicity surrounding the Australian premiere of the film at this year’s Adelaide Festival.

Australian Rules is a modern Romeo and Juliet story told within the context of a young white boy growing up in a small coastal town in Australia, where Australian Rules is the only football code and ticket to fame and fortune. It is a town like many across rural Australia, one where the Aboriginal community is totally marginalised. Phillip Gwynne has used his own growing up in rural South Australia as the basis for Deadly, Unna? (indigenous slang for cool, isn’t it?), his first novel. Since it was first published in 1999, the book has won many awards including the Children’s Book Council of Australia and the Children’s Peace Literature Award.

Despite the protests made at the Adelaide screenings by some members of the Aboriginal Port Lincoln community and the ensuing discussion about who has the right to tell stories, Phillip Gwynne has always maintained that he is telling his own story, from a white boy’s perspective.

More than anything, Australian Rules is about the courage to stand up for what you believe in, in a country which still wants to hide its head in the sand and keep its dark secrets safe. Goldman says he wanted to tell a story about relationships: between fathers and sons, mothers and sons, husbands and wives, blackfellas and whitefellas and, above all, the courage it takes to love.

Australian Rules is compelling viewing. Paul Goldman, who also co-wrote the screenplay, is best known as an award-winning director of music videos for the likes of Elvis Costello, Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue. This is a stunning feature debut for Goldman and the film is supported by strong, nuanced performances from a cast where all three of the young actors are making their feature film debuts. Nathan Phillips plays the white boy Gary Blacky Black with sensitivity and convincing adolescent confusion. Luke Carroll, a Wiradjuri man who grew up in Sydney’s Woolloomooloo, is outstanding as Dumbey Red, star of the local football team. Newcomer Lisa Flanagan plays Dumbey’s sister Clarence, the focus of his friend Blacky’s passion. Simon Westaway and Celia Ireland play Blacky’s parents and Kevin Harrington (SeaChange, The Dish) is his usual quirky self as the football coach.

Mandy Walker’s cinematography is excellent and some of the images from the film remain vivid long after the credits have rolled. Walker is a very underrated Australian cinematographer whose work on Love Serenade in no small way contributed to its winning the Camera D’Or in Cannes in 1996. Walker also shot Lantana and The Well.

Australian Rules is the latest in a rash of films to deal with Australia and its dark and troubled history of race relations. It is by far and away the strongest portrayal of how hate and fear can destroy friends, families and communities.

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