Kylie Bracknell Talks Creating Fist of Fury Noongar Daa, Working with Perth Festival, and Saving Endangered Languages in This Interview

Kylie Bracknell’s (Kaarljilba Kaardn) work to strengthen and raise the awareness of Australia’s Indigenous languages has led to the creation of some of the most exciting film and live theatre performances to come out of Perth in recent years. For the 2019-20 Perth Festival, Kylie adapted and directed (alongside husband Dr Clint Bracknell), the Shakespeare adaptation, Hecate, a translation of Macbeth, performed entirely in Noongar. For the 2020-21 Perth Festival, Kylie presented a Noongar-dub of the Bruce Lee classic, Fist of Fury Noongar Daa, making it the first feature film to be dubbed in an Australian language.

Kylie’s work extends from behind the screen, to on screen, with roles in The Sapphires, The Gods of Wheat Street, I Met a Girl, and the upcoming Peacock TV and Netflix Australia series, Irreverent.

Andrew caught up with Kylie as she is working in Queensland to discuss the launch of Fist of Fury Noongar Daa at the Sydney Film Festival, how the translation of Cantonese to Noongar took place, her work with the Perth Festival, and more in this interview.

Fist of Fury Noongar Daa screens at the Sydney Film Festival on Wed 10 November and Sun 14 November. Tickets can be purchased here.


What are you doing in Queensland, if you don’t mind me asking that is?

Oh that’s fine. I landed a role in the US network Peacock TV and Netflix Australia’s new series called Irreverent.

Congratulations!

Thank you. I’m playing a lead role in that series, so I’ve got a fair bit of a workload, but it’s exciting. It’s nice to get back to wearing my actor hat. I haven’t done it for a while, so I’m relishing in it and very grateful for the opportunity.

That’s good! I can imagine it must be a nice place to be able to film. Queensland is such a beautiful place on screen.

Oh my gosh, even just watching the split monitor one day – wow! I wasn’t watching my work, because I’d rather not. It’s just stunning the way that the DOP, Gary Phillips is like a God in the industry, is making the show look. It’s incredible. It’s definitely making this place in Djiru Country, this Djiru land here that we’re on, just breathtaking, incredibly breathtaking. And it is!

Let’s get started talking about Fist of Fury. Because it’s so good. I saw it earlier in the year at Perth festival.

Oh you did, great.

It was wonderful. It was quite an emotional experience. I’d seen Fist of Fury as a kid and I hadn’t revisited in a long time. I had forgotten the narrative and watching it this way was just so brilliant. I know you’ve talked about this quite a bit in interviews in the past, but can you talk about how this came about and where the idea came from?

I remember starting work at Perth Festival in 2019 as Artistic Associate and Tom Vincent, who’s the curator of the film festival, came to me and said ‘hey Kylie it’s great work that you’re doing with Hecate, and I’m really looking forward to seeing it. What do you think about the Navajo dubbed Star Wars and they’re also currently working on Finding Nemo – do you think that type of language dub would be a cool prototype to do something in Noongar? Is that something you’d be interested in?’

My simple response to that was ‘hell yes, but not Star Wars‘. He was like, ‘Oh, really why’s that?’ And I said, ‘Well Star Wars is written in English, right. and I’ve just come from adapting English, like the best English – I think – which is William Shakespeare (Hecate). I want to work on different text and I just think, with Star Wars… well what’s the point?’

For me, when I work on something creatively it has to have purpose and it has to have authentic drive to it, I think in terms of why you’re doing it. I think any creative person should always ask themselves, why would you do that? What is the meaning behind it?

I often get quite frustrated with how people can feel as though they can just translate something from one language to another, particularly with English to Noongar. It’s not a simple task. I didn’t want to translate from that language anymore. I thought, well, the obvious thing that people miss in language, in particularly First Peoples languages, is that our actions speak louder than our verbal dialogue, in metaphor, in principle, practically, so I wanted to focus on something more arthouse and give light to a film that was around before my time, that would also pay homage to that era and to anchor us in where we’ve come from.

Trust me – a lot of that depth, the contemplation went through my mind in that very brief five to 10 minutes of conversation. I actually said to Tom, ‘leave it with me’. The film I’d love to do, my favorite film of all time, is Coming to America. But that would be absurd. That’d be ridiculous. Why would you do that, it would be ludicrous?

But why not though?

Well, it would be good for comedy. That’s the parallel I guess, with our community. When I say ‘our’ I mean, Noongar, first and foremost, but also Aboriginal communities in the country, because we’re doing it for them first and foremost, and then broader audiences in Australia. But why we wouldn’t do Coming to America… because it wouldn’t be great as a first one.

I felt as though Bruce Lee would be a really good first one. I mentioned that to Tom and said we need something that honors body language, physical expression. Who better to do that with from seeing the first non-Anglo film hero in this country in the drive-ins to a time where language really suffered in the 60s, 70s and 80s. And even earlier, and I’m surprised that, you know, the 100 odd languages that have survived colonisation in this country are still here. So, it’s a celebration, it’s an amalgamation of celebration of all of that.

I’m glad that I landed on that choice, I think it was genius. I’m allowed to say that about my choice. (laughing)

(laughing) It really is genius and it works so well. It fits so well. I didn’t realise at first that Fist of Fury had such a great response, through the drive-ins, through the Aboriginal communities around Australia when it first released. Did you know about that when you first came up with (the title) at the particular time?

I didn’t know about that when I first came up with it. To be honest a lot of decisions I make in life and creatively, I do with my first brain and that’s my gut. I trusted my gut instincts with this one, purely because of the cinematography. That particular film has inspired the likes of Tarantino and many other well-known filmmakers, it was a breakthrough kind of film. And when I mentioned this project to the Noongar Advisory Circle at Perth Festival, Senior Arts Leader, Barry McGuire, jumped out of his chair and said ‘ohhh daughter, you know, we used to watch (it), this is the whole story about how we love Bruce Lee when I was a kid’, and it just went boom, like I think his response to this creative idea sold it to the festival. And everyone was like, ‘yep, okay Kylie we believe you. This is a great idea. That’s fun.’ Yeah, so it’s great to have that endorsement. But yeah, it was really wonderful to hear those, you know, nostalgic moments from that particular era I had hoped we could focus on.

Kylie and Clint at Fist of Fury Noongar Daa Somerville premier, photo courtesy of Perth Festival

It’s something that is really nice to be able to hear removed from the really quite terrible English dubs. I know that Monkey Magic had recently been re-released on Netflix as well and revisiting that, especially as a white kid it washes over you, and I didn’t pay attention to that at all or realise. Revisiting it now – like holy shit this is just terrible. It’s really, really quite comforting to be able to have that removed from a classic film. I think for a lot of people, especially for Fist of Fury, the dubbed version that they’re still hearing is the one from the 70s. And it’s still got that…..

It’s a fine line. I don’t want to judge the quality of dubs because it’s great that people can watch something in their own language to get the story. At the same time, how much obligation should there be in honouring the onscreen story and honouring the origin of where this plotline is coming from and the people that essentially are acting this out on screen for us?

I don’t rate the English version. Actually Clint and I, we are Boomerang and Spear. We did the subtitles too, for our Noongar version. So the subtitles were updated as well to honor a middle ground of the Noongar and the Cantonese.

How do you find that middle ground?

Respectfully through lots of conversations and considerations, and experience, just having experience and depth of compassion and understanding and respect of language and your collaborators.

It makes for a much more entertaining film, that’s for sure. The subtitles are… there’s something – there’s an energy to them, which I find really interesting.

There is. Absolutely. And Clint and I had a lot of fun with subtitles because that was us using English maybe the way it should have been used originally when they dubbed it, to stick to the original Cantonese storyline.  

It’s very much for a Noongar audience – the subtitles, the laughs sit in the right place and I think also Noongar community when it was playing there and I think also like communities around Australia, Aboriginal communities will understand it especially that line like, ‘oh this poxy bloke’, you can tell that he is just annoying, he’s not getting it right. We did have a lot of fun with the subtitles.

Most people know how stressful it is to put something like this together and the limitations you have, but also the constricted pockets of time to deliver things and get things ready so it can be mastered and it’s not like a holiday.

It’s hard work and we’re representing a language that’s endangered, only 2% of our community speak it and it is not smooth sailing, trying to keep your language humming, it is not smooth sailing at all.

How long did it take to prep?

I think it got greenlit in early September (2020), so we had around three and a half months turn around.

Wow! That’s intense!

That was from translation process, editing process, refining process, finalizing process just a script. And then it was audition process, expression of interest callout for emergent speakers and then the final casting process and then the recording process, directing, final mix process, subtitle process, mastering process. So, a lot of sleepless nights and doing all of that with a toddler as well.

I can imagine for most people that would take a whole year, two years to do.

It is a testament to my husband and I’s ability now that we’ve been together for seven years. We’ve worked on translations before this having co-translated Hecate, the Macbeth adaptation in Noongar. I’m not sure if you caught that.

I wanted to lead into talking about that too. I did see that it was really something!

Oh you did!? Thank you for seeing that. We’ve also co-translated two episodes of Little J and Big Cuz, the award winning animation series. We’ve co-translated some songs and some covers, we know each other’s rhythm and how to work efficiently. I have some colleagues of mine joke and say, ‘how the heck do you stay married? How do all that together and work together? How do you do that, I couldn’t do that’ (laughing).

Because of our love of our language and us really wanting to keep it strong.

We want to keep it in a neat pocket. We want to keep it in a place where it is revered, and not just tacked on to something, or just used as a response mechanism to translate English. You know, we’re coming from a strength of language and that keeps us together that keeps us collaborating and challenging each other creatively.

So how do we do it? Well, we have Roma Yibiyung Winmar who is a stalwart champion and ambassador of our language. We are incredibly grateful for her support, her backing and endorsement. Also her wits and smarts around the Noongar language. She has taught Noongar language to children for years and that’s often the hardest group to teach anything to. Having her there as a collaborator to edit our work is vital. It gives us the courage to do these groundbreaking world firsts.

Ching Ching Ho was incredibly instrumental we could not have done this without her because her work was incredibly vital too. What she did for us was create an Excel spreadsheet that listed the Cantonese character dialogue and an extension of that was a column of the semantics of that. We also have the column for the not so great English dub. Then we had another column for the Noongar and then we had a column for the Noongar back into English which we call the Noonglish. It’s tiring looking at all of those columns but necessary, of course.

Then what happens with that from the script section is, I take that into the studio and we’re working with actors and we’re trying to, in order for us to honor this work completely, make it a really classy dub. I strived to match the on-screen characters performance, mouth or verbal movements as much as possible without compromising on our language, because I would never do that. Often that meant reducing the line by a syllable or adding a syllable or switching the phrasing slightly, so that we’re shifting a word around to suit the mouth movements a little better. That is really nerve wracking to do in the studio.

Some days I’d try to call Aunty Roma to consult a section or two, but she’d be teaching a class so I couldn’t reach her. Often I would have to make executive decisions – ‘okay, we’re going to go with this and because we’re on a tight timeframe and we need to get this wrapped’. I would check with her later if I needed to do any ADR pick-ups but because we’ve worked together numerous times before she said, ‘No, that’s okay. The way that you’ve shifted or edited it is good. You know what you’re doing!.’ Did I digress too much? (laughing)

Fist of Fury Noongar Daa pre-screening Q&A Somerville, photo by J Wyld courtesy of Perth Festival

No, not at all. This is really interesting and something which had rolled through my mind a lot when I was watching Hecate, which was an experience, a really powerful performance and especially it came at a time, obviously pre-COVID, which we were on the cusp (of things locking down), and sitting in the theatre and just experiencing everything was just wonderful. Watching the actors come down aisles. It made it really made you feel part of the actual performance and part of the narrative that was going on. That was so, so exciting.

Is there a bit of a freedom to Perth Festival, giving you the ability to be able to put on something like both Fist of Fury Noongar Daa and Hecate and really presenting the Noongar language respectfully and powerfully to an audience that may otherwise not usually go and see it?

Absolutely. The wonderful thing about Perth Festival and their current directorship is there’s a smartness in heart about where we should be by this point in time. And there is a want and a willingness and a passionate advocacy for the maintenance, preservation and celebration of local, historical, current contemporary culture. And that means Noongar culture. And that means Noongar language. And that means amplifying Noongar voices in Noongar language. And it means collaborating with local artists and investing in the community and investing in the development of the community and development of future artists to maintain that. That’s the other thing I really appreciate about being an Artistic Associate at Perth Festival is that the group understands that whatever investment we make now will have a ripple effect in years to come. It’s an exemplary display of leadership in action, in my opinion.

It makes for a really powerful festival.  It’s called the Perth International Arts Festival, but it really actually focuses back on home, which is something that somebody who’s lived in Perth almost all my life I was born here grew up a little bit in Queensland and came back here it’s made me respect Perth a little bit more and love Perth a little bit more, which is nice to see because we’re always looking afar like, you know, art festivals are often always looking afar and it’s nice to have that focus back on home, and especially in this way as well.

I want to talk about how we can save an endangered language. What’s the process? Is it through creating art like this? Are there other ways as well that we can get behind and make sure that we can save these dying languages?

You cannot save a language like it is one exhibit item. A language can only be saved when the community whose language it is are supported to do that very act.

Saving a language is about acknowledging and recognizing that language is one component of a functioning community, how people connect with their culture. And often you’ll find the language that is spoken is a celebration of how people view the world. It’s a celebration of how people value life, and how that interconnects with nature, the very thing that provides us that life.  Saving a language, I think people also need to realize that the question you ask is not simple. It’s a little complex to respond to, but I’ll do it in parts.

To help save a language it definitely needs to be embraced. So it’s wonderful that the Western Australian government are contributing one hour a week to Aboriginal languages, it’s not enough, but it’s a start. I would say to community members who are passionate about supporting languages being kept alive that they should celebrate the local language with their children, and praise local Aboriginal groups for their positive optimistic display and use of their mother tongue. Continue to encourage arts bodies who are actively reclaiming language and working with the reclamation of language whether it be financially or in written form, or just whatever celebration you can offer that shows them encouragement. Because whatever language comes from the area that you live is a part of that air you breathe and a part of that that country that you live on and let you source your produce from for example.

I’ve said this a couple of times before in Noongar language, ‘boodj’ is the first stage of pregnancy add an extension to that word, ‘boodj’ will become ‘boodjar’ adding the ‘ar’ sound becomes land, the land or the Mother Earth. When you add a ‘ee’ sound on the end of that, so ‘boodj’, ‘boodjar’, ‘boodjari’. ‘Boodjari’ is full term pregnancy. So your land or your Mother Earth, the provider of life, sits inside the first stage of creating life. And before the end stage of that fully formed life.  That’s how our language celebrates us as a people and it keeps us connected to our place. There is a lot of metaphor embedded in the way we sound out our language and the way that we speak our language.

The danger though, right now I see as a language activist is that it’s becoming more fashionable to speak local languages, but a lot of people are speaking those local languages through an English lens. So the grammar in which people are using the local language is respecting English more than it is respecting their own natural language flow and meaning. And that makes me quite concerned and it makes me quite sad. There are lots of things to consider when you’re wanting to celebrate and somehow help save a language. I think the most common thing to say would be tread carefully and tread lightly and ask the people who know about the language how to save it and what help you can offer them so that they can continue to do it in the best way they feel is most appropriate.

Thank you.

I know that you’ve traveled around Australia with Fist of Fury Noongar Daa. You were supposed to have at it MIFF, and now it’s going to be at Sydney Film Festival. What’s that journey been like with taking it to places other than Perth?

Internally, it’s been a bit conflicted because we haven’t been able to be there personally and it’s the first time that the film is going to play outside of Noongar country without us there to talk to it and hold it safely. When it toured Noongar country, we made it very obvious to Perth Festival, from us at Boomerang and Spear that it needs to travel with community. So it’s about generating an opportunity for a couple of the voice cast to be paid to go and speak about them reclaiming their language in this wonderful art vehicle, for lack of a better phrase. With MIFF, they wanted it to go to MIFF play, we said no to that, because we’re not ready for it to be streamed, because we don’t want it to be a product per se. I do want it to be celebrated as a language reclamation dub and it’s about bringing people together.

Even though it’s not Noongar country, whatever language group that’s there that either speak their language or are also reclaiming, restoring their language. Or if they’ve, if the language is going completely into sleeping mode, and then they can’t access it or speak it anymore. Watching something like this can be triggering and so having some of us there to talk about that and having some of the local community feel comfortable enough to come up and have yarn with us and say ‘that was solid what you mob did’.

Most of our community in Noongar country were very teary, moved and emotional. So, I imagine it will have an equal sort of response in other areas where their languages is a missing part or a longing part or something that’s still present but they’re working and striving to connect to it. It’s just wonderful to have us there in person wherever possible because it’s about being with people. I think that’s the thing that COVID has really made apparent to our communities is just how much it means to have people around us. You know, often Aboriginal people have been put-down for how many people they have in their houses or you know, in there’s too many of them in that room, or whatever, it may be circumstantial, but we’ve always known the importance and the strength of having our mob with us and being together as one in appreciation of what’s really important. Not separate to that. Not taking each other’s presence for granted. So we still apply that sort of togetherness in a cinema or an outdoor cinema and having everyone there to sharing that and celebrate it together. If you’re celebrating it alone, how does that look, what is the point?

Having said that, I’m really excited. I’m nervous and excited. I don’t know how it will be received. It’s the first interstate festival where it will actually play. Because in Melbourne it didn’t get to play in cinema and that was conditional for us. I’m actually keen to see how many people will actually go see it. Because, to be very honest, I don’t think the hearts of some or most Australians take our languages seriously enough yet.  And if you don’t speak any other languages but English, you don’t tend to really be drawn to non-English films where you have to read subtitles. So we’ll see.

That’s been my experience as well. I like to try and embrace as many different films as possible and watch as many different films as possible.

Oh, but they’ll go and see a French film…

That’s what I was going to say it’s like the French Film Festival. People go and they’d love it. And it’s like, yeah, okay. All right. You kind of, see one French film, you know… I love them. I do but you’ve got to embrace local.

Yeah, and it makes me sad. And I get to interviews. I’m like, ‘well, how should I conduct myself in the interview today? Should I speak about all of the optimistic lovely, you know, glossy sort of beautiful glowing sunshine flower blossoming things’, ‘or should I actually just call people out and go “what are you doing?”’

I mean, you just asked me the question, how can we help said languages? Go and see the film. Go and hear it.

Let 109 minutes of Noongar language wash over you, absorb it. Learn about it. Learn how you can connect with people. You’ve got to do the work, you’ve got to do the research.

Voice Cast: Barry McGuire, Kyle J. Morrison and Kylie Bracknell

How do you prepare for interviews as well? For me, I do the research, I read, I watch, I do all the reading and everything. But I’ve never actually asked the people who I do interview how they prepare for interviews. So how do you do that yourself?

An interviewer hasn’t asked me that. I prepare for my interviews by meditating. And that meditation isn’t long. It’s a very short process of acknowledging where I am, at that present moment, speaking to my ancestors, asking them for guidance.

Knowing who I’m speaking to, and what they celebrate, or don’t. And trusting that the way that I speak from my heart will always resonate. I don’t need to research being me. But I do need to clock my growth and what I am advocating for, to ensure that the leadership of the project that I’m representing beams.

The interview is never about me. It’s about what I’m working on, and about what my contribution is. So it’s not even about nervousness or worry. It’s a period of excitement where I go, Okay, what, what can I celebrate in this interview that I perhaps haven’t done in other interviews? What else can I offer the listening audience, or reading audience that they might not have heard about this project before? So I meditate through those patterns of thought process, and it’s always about giving, it’s always about educating and opening new doors of understanding.

Thank you. Thank you for that answer. As I said, I’ve never actually asked it before, but I sit here and I feel what I do is a great privilege to be able to talk to people like yourself to be able to talk to filmmakers, who are sharing their stories and their work. It is a great privilege. And I don’t take it lightly. And that’s part of the reason I like to highlight and celebrate films like what you’ve done with Fist of Fury Noongar Daa, because and I believe in my core, that this is the kind of thing that we need more of that we need to be able to, as you were saying, people need to go along and see these films.

I’m so grateful. And it’s just serendipitous that you have been there in person for the Somerville premiere screening, and also that you’ve seen Hecate too. So you can, you really can write to the personal experience of being in the space and feeling it in person. And that that’s makes me smile.

I felt at least as somebody who writes about the arts, who experiences and enjoys it and wants to support it, it would be disingenuous of me if I didn’t actually go along and participate in these kinds of events. It’s… what am I doing then? It’s pointless. It would be dishonest, basically.

Then I go along and see it, and I’m like, ‘oh, gosh, I want 10 more of these. I want 20 more of these.’ That’s the joy of being able to walk out of a cinema and, especially at Somerville, which is such a beautiful place, and there’s a buzz, an excitement there.

Traditionally, it was a very joyful area, ceremonies all about love and marriage. The marriage place is not far from there. So that particular area itself has a rich history of beautiful energy, and that permeates through that space.

I think you can feel that for sure. What are you going to do next? Are we going to see something else like this again, because I kind of want to see something else like this again, but I also want to see something that’s unique and different. That’s not based on pre-existing text.

I’m currently a part of a writing team for a feature film. I can’t say any more than that at the moment, announcements haven’t been done. So that’s what I’m doing at the moment. I’m looking at making my contribution to that project another first as well, something that we haven’t seen on screen before. And Clint is working on a wonderful album of songs that will be celebrated in Perth Festival 21.

And there are tons of other ideas bubbling away that will eventually I think, take some really wonderful next steps.

We’re juggling big projects at the moment. I mean, I’m working on this new series for Peacock TV and Netflix. And that’s, that has to be my primary focus right now. But we are absolutely looking at what extended life Fist of Fury Noongar Daa can have before we immediately move on, but we are saying yes to a couple of other projects, and instigating a couple of other projects and creating space for our other ideas to be nurtured into development phase and, and beyond. And we always lift others with us. How I will tie that up in a nice little cute bow is by saying, I don’t like to talk about what we’re working on until it’s ready to be celebrated with the world.

All I need to know is I’ve got things to look forward to. That’s as a purely selfish thing. All I just need to know. It’s like things on the horizon. They’re coming.

I love the selections (of Perth Festival) that are supporting female directors, as well as it’s nice to see a new wave coming through.

I remember going to watch Portrait of a Lady on Fire in the press screening, and I don’t think that anybody was expecting what we got to see there. And that was it was a little bit overwhelming. They do a really good job of supporting great, great work with the film festival. So that in itself is something that I love a lot.

It’s so good that Perth has that right? We’ve got to keep celebrating the good things about Perth to keep it hip, keep it smart.

We feel like we’re on an upswing, like there’s there feels like we’re starting to get become something a place like we’ve always been a place for people to visit. I was talking to somebody about this yesterday, where they’ve moved here from South Australia, and they lived in South Australia all their life, and then they’ve just moved here and now like, I didn’t realise it Perth was just cool. And it’s like, yeah, you should have come in sooner. I feel that like people are starting to recognise that things are exciting things are going on.

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