Darlene Taylor has joined LP as a culture correspondent.
The word “youth” is synonymous with “young men” in Bra Boys, a film in which females are absent except for a stalwart grandmother, two little girls playing patty-cake as the Long Bay Correctional Complex lurks in the background and some mums who let their sons surf with the gang who give the documentary its name.
Since women are often portrayed as victims in feature films about working-class men, their nonappearance in Bra Boys could be a sign there are things the filmmakers do not want the audience to know about.
For instance, Grace in Once Were Warriors kills herself after a rape confirms her fears she will never escape, while Michelle in The Boys is brutalised by the psychopathic leader of a band of siblings in Western Sydney.
Though Bra Boys, which was recently released on DVD, gives us no insight into how females living in Maroubra cope with their lot, it is an intriguing and confronting look at the way surfing has given the Abberton brothers focus in their lives.
According to writer/director/producer Sunny Abberton, “the surf has saved so many kids around here, and led them to a lifestyle in the ocean instead of a lifestyle in crime”.
The legal trouble Jai and Koby Abberton found themselves in during the making of the documentary makes the “beach or prison” argument unsustainable. Still, it is clear some marginalised boys benefit from having the role models and sporting interest provided by the surfing culture.
A fifteen-year-old talks in the picture about being advised to get off drugs or end up in prison and housing commission tenant Jess Polock is taken under Koby’s wing, albeit only if he does not play up on their surfing trips.
Bra Boys tells us a lot about how bad parenting inspired the creation of a substitute family, however, one of the stars of Romper Stomper makes a similar claim in the DVD extras for that infamous film about a group of skinheads.
Abberton’s work also illustrates how important class still is in Australia.
The machismo of the Bra Boys, which is positively shown in the surfing scenes and negatively demonstrated when they are fighting rival gangs or the police, is just another version of the identity blue-collar men have used for generations to make up for their modest status.
There is something frustrating about the acceptance by the Bra Boys of such a uniform idea of what it means to be both a man and from Maroubra.
Their mindset does not allow for social mobility, going to university or being mates with homosexuals or non-surfers.
An article on The Independent’s website about the film contended that:
Critics have accused the film of glorifying thuggery, and the type of “localism” that led to the December 2005 Cronulla riots, when white surfers attacked Lebanese-Australians visiting “their” beach.
Clifton Evers, a Sydney University academic and keen wave-rider, wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald that visitors to Maroubra risked being “bullied by the resident group of surfers”. He said: “It can happen just for catching a wave they wanted, or for parking in a spot they have ‘reserved’.” Mr Evers said that Bra Boys ignored the gentrification of Maroubra, with its new cafes and expensive houses. “The film sucks you into an ugly world of surfing, localism, violence, mateship and masculinity,” he wrote.
Perhaps the moment that most confirms that the Bra Boys are much more than just naughty boys is the inclusion of Anthony Hines in the series of photographs at the end of the movie in tribute to some deceased members of the tribe.
Hines was a convicted rapist and the man Jai shot in response to Hines’s threat to sexually assault his girlfriend so the “RIP Always in our hearts” inscription on his photo was odd indeed.
Even after causing such strife, Hines apparently remained part of the brotherhood.
*Phillip Butterss wrote a journal article called “When Being A Man Is All You’ve Got: Masculinity in Romper Stomper, Idiot Box, Blackrock and The Boys”.