Yolngu Boy: Three friends reunited

Yolngu Boy: Three friends reunited
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Lorrpu (John Sebastian Pilakui) dreams of when he and his friends were initiated, as Botj (Sean Mununggur) arrives back from three months in jail. Their friend Milika (Nathan Daniels) is a young football star, but he and Lorrpu have been chosen for 'ceremony’, a great honour that Botj will not share. Botj’s uncle Matjala (Makuma Yunupingu) warns Botj to leave his mother alone. Summary by Paul Byrnes.

The film opens with great energy and contemporary reality, and sense of optimism. Stephen Johnson’s filming techniques are percussive and surprising, very different to the way stories in this milieu are usually filmed.


Yolngu Boy synopsis

Botj, Lorrpu and Milika are three Yolngu teenagers from northeast Arnhem Land, who are about to become men. Botj (Sean Mununggurr) is estranged from his parents and prone to glue sniffing. He’s upset when his friends Lorrpu (John Sebastian Pilakui) and Milika (Nathan Daniels) are chosen for a men’s ceremony, and he is not. He leads a break-in at the local shop that goes disastrously wrong. The three boys determine to run away to Darwin, 500 kilometres away, in a stolen canoe. On the journey, they rediscover hunting skills they learned as children and strengths they didn’t know they had. They are becoming men, but their arrival in Darwin brings much bigger challenges.


Yolngu Boy curator's notes

Yolngu Boy was a stunningly ambitious project – the first feature film of the Australian Children’s Television Foundation, shot entirely in remote and difficult locations in Arnhem Land, with an entirely untrained Indigenous cast, and aiming to communicate with a wide youth audience. Even more significant, it aimed to be consultative and collaborative at every step – a joint effort between white filmmakers and black communities to tell a story those communities wanted told.

It’s no wonder the process took six years and a great deal of goodwill on both sides. The director Stephen Johnson had grown up in Darwin, where his father taught at an Aboriginal high school. Johnson had connections with the Yolngu communities through his music clips for the band Yothu Yindi, but the process of getting appropriate permissions and agreement took several years. The scriptwriter Chris Anastassiades visited various communities over five years to gather material.

The resulting film is surprising on many counts. It’s visually stunning, making great use of the landscape to give a sense of the role that land plays in the Yolngu culture, but very young and contemporary in style – with a driving soundtrack, fast editing and a sense of fun. The three young actors give natural performances, and the story does not overly romanticise the culture. Indeed, the film’s greatest asset is the way it directly addresses the difficult realities facing its characters, especially in the final scenes in Darwin, where tragedy strikes with full force. The film is a remarkable achievement for all concerned.

Notes by Paul Byrnes


Additional Curator's notes

Yolngu Boy is the story of three boys as they journey into manhood, not all of them destined to make it. The issues addressed by Yolngu Boy are done tastefully, the Indigenous characterisations not sacrificed by Western guilt by way of over romanticisation or dehumanisation of the culture and main characters. Instead, Yolngu Boy does its best to examine the tensions between Western and Indigenous cultures, and the task of securing a rightful place in the world.

The displacement of the Indigenous male(s) is the theme that dominates this narrative, and the possibility of being an Indigenous male denied a place within both their traditional community as well as the wider (non-Indigenous) community is a predicament that is explored by the filmmakers. Audiences are urged to sympathise with Botj (Sean Mununggurr), the Indigenous youth who is struggling to find his place in the world, having been demoted to the status of boy until he proves himself worthy of becoming a man. The kinship bond between the three main characters ensures that though the characters may undertake a journey together, each destiny is unique in nature and outcome.

Additional notes by Romaine Moreton


Education notes

This clip shows three teenage Yolngu boys, Lorrpu (John Sebastian Pilakui), Milika (Nathan Daniels) and Botj (Sean Mununggurr), all of whom live in north-eastern Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. The clip opens with Lorrpu dreaming about the first initiation ceremony the three friends were involved in as young boys. Lorrpu then introduces Botj who is seen returning home after a period in prison, and Milika who wants to be a football star. At a local football match, the narration implies that Lorrpu is being singled out for final initiation by an Elder, Dawu (Nungki Yunupingu). The soundtrack includes narration from Lorrpu and music featuring a didgeridoo.

Educational value points

  • The clip presents three ‘Yolngu boys’, Lorrpu, Botj and Milika. They are together in Lorrpu’s dream, but the clip then indicates the diverse paths that they will follow later in the film as a result of life experiences and choices. The various concerns that challenge the boys and that will shape the film’s narrative include Lorrpu’s desire to maintain the traditional ways of his Yolngu ancestors, Botj’s alienation, which leads to his antisocial behaviour, and Milika’s obsession with becoming a football star.
  • The sequences in the clip point to the central issue explored in the film Yolngu Boy, the quest for identity by Indigenous male adolescents. Lorrpu, Botj and Milika are portrayed as beginning to make the transition from childhood to adulthood. The boys must negotiate their way into adulthood through a complex array of opportunities and decisions presented by both their Indigenous culture and Western culture.
  • The opening sequence of the clip shows a group of Indigenous men and boys moving through the landscape wearing ceremonial dress. It becomes apparent that this is Lorrpu’s dream of the initiation ceremony that the three friends were involved in as young boys. Later in the clip Lorrpu is chosen by the Elder Dawu to participate in a further initiation ceremony. Elders prepare those being initiated for their ceremonial obligations and their role as adults within the community.
  • The clip uses the device of the boys facing different challenges to introduce some of the personal and social issues encountered in contemporary Indigenous communities. Milika’s dream of becoming a football star suggests the potential upheavals as well as the success experienced by talented Indigenous footballers. Botj’s story hints at the wider story of disadvantage often experienced by young Indigenous men returning from the prison system, as in this scene he appears to be alienated from his own community.
  • The film techniques used by director Stephen Johnson propel the story forward and make the issue of Indigenous identity accessible and contemporary. Johnson, who has directed video clips for the band Yothu Yindi, includes rapid camera movements, sudden zooms, fast edits and freeze frames, as well as a driving soundtrack that combines contemporary music with Indigenous chants to appeal to a young audience.
  • The film’s title, Yolngu Boy, refers to the Yolngu people of north-eastern Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. The Yolngu people have only had sustained contact with Europeans since 1935, first through Methodist missions and more recently with the establishment of mines owned by multinational companies on their land. English is a second or third language for Yolngu people, and they have a rich linguistic background that includes complex traditional language with several dialects or separate languages.
  • Yolngu Boy was supported by the Yothu Yindi Foundation, which was set up by the band Yothu Yindi and Yolngu community leaders to support and promote Yolngu cultural life. Songwriter and lead singer of the band Mr Yunupingu and his brother Galarrwuy Yunupingu were associate producers of the film and helped to provide an insight into difficulties faced by teenagers in Arnhem Land. Members of the community at Yirrkala, the locale for much of the film, were involved in the production as advisers, prop makers and actors.

Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia

Production company:
Burrundi Productions, The Australian Children's Television Foundation
Gordon Glenn, Patricia Edgar
Associate Producers:
Mandawuy Yunupingu, Galarrwuy Yunupingu
Stephen Johnson
Chris Anastassiades
Commisioning editor, SBSi :
Barbara Masel
Produced with the assistance of SBS Television and Online Australia