Forms and Functions of Humor in Indigenous Films

A Comparison between "Boy" by Taika Waititi and "Bran Nue Dae" by Rachel Perkins

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2017

17 Pages, Grade: 2,0



Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. Forms and Functions of Humor

3. Analysis of Humor in “Boy”
3.1 Historical Background
3.2 Scene Analysis
3.2.1 Father and Son – Who am I?
3.2.2 Haka Dance
3.2.3 Michael Jackson

4. Analysis of Humor in “Bran Nue Dae”
4.1 Historical Background
4.2 Scene Analysis
4.2.1 “Nothing I Would Rather Be”
4.2.2 Prison
4.2.3 The Condom Tree

5. Critical Reflection on both films

6. References

1. Introduction

This term paper focusses on the comparison between two Indigenous films, “Boy” by Taika Waititi and “Bran Nue Dae” By Rachel Perkins on the basis of forms and functions of humor that is presented in both films.

On the one hand, a profound sociological study of the New Zealand’s movie Boy (2010) stimulates a philosophical debate on the ways of life of people or urge the viewer to think about how to deal with nature. It mercilessly shows the harsh reality of social isolation and challenge the confrontation with the film content in a very serious way. On the other hand, the Australian movie called Bran Nue Dae (2009) cheerfully packs the history of the persecution and discrimination of the Aborigines as rapidly and humorously as it is possible, without renouncing the message of the finally acquired social equality of the Aborigines in 1967.

Comparing these two films, the viewer might immediately ask the question why the depiction of historical trauma of the two peoples, Māori and Aborigines, is presented in a comical manner. These films are classified as “dramedies”: “A television programme or film in which the comic elements derive mainly from character and plot development.”1 It does not mean a dramedy is a comedy with dramatic elements or vice versa, it’s a genre of drama that is defined by stories focusing on character development, intense emotions and inner conflict as the primary source of plot.

In these films, humor has been selected as a main tool to illustrate the problems of these two nations that have been confronted with social segregation in New Zeeland and Australia. For this reason, such a tragicomically represented humor serves as a difficulty for its appropriate perception on the viewers’ part.

In the movies, the plot revolves in 1969 in Australia and in 1984 in New Zealand, i.e. explicitly in the times of the national revival of Aborigines and Maori. Then, after centuries of discrimination, they were given full rights and became full-fledged members of society. So, a mix of tragedy and comedy is not a coincidence since the Indigenous people who have come through a lot of tragedy had then a reason to cheerfully celebrate their newly obtained equal status.

2. Forms and Functions of Humor

The fictional discourse of films, especially in terms of humor, operates on two levels of communication: the inter-character level, representing the fictional participants’ interactions, and the recipient’s level (in this case the viewer’s), which concerns the viewer’s interpretation of the former that was carefully devised by the film production crew (collective sender). Humor in films can be either entertaining or amusing.

Of course, the occurrence of various forms of humor can be facilitated by a careful construction of the characters’ interactions, communicative phenomena that would never happen in everyday life or, if materialized, would not carry any humorousness for the participants. The reason is that humor in film discourse is constructed by the collective sender in order to amuse or entertain the recipient, via characters’ utterances and actions (see Dynel 2011, pp. 1629ff.).

In this context, Morreall (1983, p. 83) notes that humor involves “a jolt to our picture of reality […]” and that a film “which stays pretty close to reality and builds its incongruity on plausible events, can be amusing from beginning to end; by preserving our sense of reality and our ordinary expectations, it can jolt us with incongruities again and again.”

To sum it up, the humor used in films must sound plausible and realistic in the context of the characters’ portrayal and interaction, be plausibly interwoven into non-humorous discourse, and reminiscent of real world people (at times stereotypical) and their interactions.

Comedy is an extremely rare genre, while representing Indigenous people and interracial relationships. However, the trend to use humor as an instrument for that has always been visible in Australia. For instance, Basically Black (1973) Babakeueria (1986) were broadcatsted in TV and satirically depicted the racial stereotypes. Recently, Black Comedy (2014), the ABC series like 8MMM Aboriginal Radio have supported the tendency (Hurley 2015, n.p.). The above-mentioned shows aim to debunk the stereotyped representation of the Indigenous peoples as not normal ones. This refusal to admit the similarity between the Indigenous and not Indigenous people as well as that the stereotype that the Indigenous cannot do bad or silly things can be described as a racism since it puts this national group out of an ordinary lifestyle. The reason was the fear of being accused of racism because of laughing at the Indigenous. Thus, the main function of the humor in these movies is to debunk the above-mentioned stereotype. The authors wanted to show hereby that the Indigenous people cannot be excluded from the comedies just because they went through historical tragedies.

This function defines the main form of humor in the movies, namely the black humor, because one of the tasks is to portray the Indigenous as dumb and silly as it is possible. Bergson's definition that humor is a situation, in which one laughs in spite of the circumstances, includes a certain phenomenon typical of black humor that evolved from a sarcastic vision. Namely, the laughing one has a certain superiority over the paradoxical readiness for the mirth, although there is nothing to laugh about (Bergson 1972, p.11).

The black humor occurs certain characteristics of strong contrast between content concepts about crime, death, illness or other atrocities and application of means of comedy in these representations, or situations (Bergson 1972, p.12). For instance, Rocky in Boy believes to receive superpowers by killing his mother during his birth. The macabre elements that violate the standards of morality, taboos, and good taste are also typical of this humor. Black humor then uses the human emotions, such as fear and terror, and therefore often comes in connection with harsh criticism because of indignation of the recipient. So, the three relatives of black humor are irony, satire, and sarcasm, irony using a critical or negative attitude within the inappropriate situation, satire making fun of abuses and sarcasm involving a cynical mockery (Bergson 1972, p.13).

This kind of humor, which is always implicit in criticism and immortality, is something both movies refer to as the desire to tease the dark phenomena into the light, or to make the dark side of the visible and often dazzling visible. Through the detour of negative (“negative'” understood in the sense of “wrong”) view, this kind of humor is trying to reach the goal of the essential. Although the well-known paths usually appear walkable, they are only designed for comfort and lead to a beautiful view. Black humor means there the way to the alternative: First one must thicket himself and pave the way to independently discover the hidden unknown and point it out (Bergson 1972, pp.12-15).

Another function of using the humor in the movies about Indigenous is to show that they have adopted such a perception and this kind of lifestyle to soften the suffering that they had to go through historically. As the Bran Nue Dae movie director Perkins noted when she was marketing this film, not everything about Indigenous people has to be serious. And as Haebich notes, in her essay on the film, Indigenous people often use humor to manage trauma (Haebich 2015, n.p.). The people have hereby to look at the Indigenous in another way, that is to value them and accept them as a part of society, because despite of the whole injustice, they do not feel hatred, but are full of positive emotions and are even ready to laugh at themselves.

3. Analysis of Humor in “Boy”

3.1 Historical Background

Māori originated from settlers from eastern Polynesia who approximately came to New Zealand (Aotearoa) between 1200 and 1300. They lived in isolation for several centuries and developed a unique culture with an own language, rich mythology, distinctive crafts, performing arts and a warrior culture. In the 17th century Europeans found New Zealand in their expeditions which brought an enormous change to Māori culture. Many people started adapting to the Western lifestyle and society and with the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi (1840), the cultures coexisted as a part of a British colony. But far-reaching conflicts evolved, especially over disputed land sales, during which the Māori people have been visibly disadvantaged and decimated over decades which led to the Land Wars in the 1860s. Māori land was confiscated (only 5% of land was still in Māori hand) and they had struggles with their economic situation. (Benton 1988, p.75).

3.2 Scene Analysis

Boy is a delightful film in its colorful production values, with animated and fantasy interludes. It explores the area’s rugged natural beauty without ignoring its poverty which is so important to mention. This unpretentious comic tale of a youngster’s growing relationship with a long-absent father and with himself has a surprising mixture of forms: silliness is combined with sadness, fantasy with reality, humor with truth. Boy is deeply embedded in a local sense of place even though the storyline demonstrates a love of global popular culture, especially pop king Michael Jackson. Together with Māori popular culture and New Zealand national culture, this film helps to shape contemporary media.

3.2.1 Father and Son – Who am I?

Before the protagonist’s father named Alamein was even introduced to the viewers, Boy asks himself a question “Who am I” and connects his identity with his father. The father seems to be a real role model and an ideal of masculinity for him, hereby embodying the elements of popular and traditional culture. This idealization is depicted in the initial movie scene in a humorous manner, because Boy lively imagines his father to be a deep sea diver, a master carver and the rugby team captain. Also, in several scenes Boy fantasizes that his father is Michael Jackson. Actually, Boy uses any possibility in almost every scene to portray his father as a hero. Daniell (2012) particularly emphasizes two sequences, the Beat It (1983) and recreation of Jackson’s Billy Jean (1983) videos, as the ones that urge Boy’s imagination about his father. According to the author, this phantasy and humorous perspective should be considered as an attempt to alleviate a severe reality (Daniell 2012, p.29). Daniell (2012) concludes that Boy is aware of his vulnerability get a relief by means of humor. For this reason, he always turns on his imagination in any stressful scenarios. Father serves hereby as a main object of this imagination, because a vulnerable boy needs a role model that would direct him in a right way (Daniell 2012, p.30).

Saying “I thought I was like you, but I’m not”, the boy answers the question “Who am I?” asked in the initial scene. These words that he said in the end of the movie, show that the father did not meet his expectations and does not correspond to the the role model status. The scene and the usage of humor in it show that any hopes lost are a consequence of the vain and false expectations that the people cannot live up to. However, to make this clear and also a serious message, a really sick boy’s fantasy has been used as an instrument in the movie.

It is heartbreakingly sad watching Boy’s illusions shatter as he begins to see his father for the cringeworthy immature man-child he is. This leads to another main theme in this film: the non-existent role models. It seems that in this movie no adult has or wants to take the responsibility for the children. Beginning with an absent father, a dead mother, a grandmother who is leaving for a funeral (for a couple of days/weeks) and a permanent-working aunt. This is why Boy turns out to have the most responsibility in the crowd of children he joins everyday on the beach. Boy’s journey leads towards finding his own identity, exploring and reinforcing identity and enhancing self-esteem. He finds out that his father is not the idealized version of Michael Jackson, in reality he is a drunk, irresponsible and depressed dad who just returned from prison to find a bundle of money he buried somewhere near Boy’s home. Mainly because of him, Boy takes over adult responsibilities, but of course, with a child’s sensibility.

3.2.2 Haka Dance

At the end of the film, the actors/characters perform a Thriller / Poi E hybrid haka amidst the credits. This unites the community of characters, who we as an audience see as the actors “as him/herself”. Waititi’s hybrid haka reminds us of the pretend nature of the film. The idea of whanaungatanga is extended through the credits. Those who watch the credits right through to their end are rewarded by the resurrection of Leaf. Actors who inhabited distinct characters during the performance of the film are shown in a noa state – being themselves, while still interacting with the world of the film set.2

Perrott lists haka among the traditional elements of New Zealand and its culture in the movie, together with the song Poi E (1984), the Goodnight Kiwi cartoon as well as specific characters’ gestures (Perrott 2010, p.50). Smith goes further and extends a director’s intentions to an attempt of combining traditional (local) and popular (international) elements in the movie. Of course, it has led to very humorous scenes, especially the final one, which is dedicated to the haka, Poi E, and Michael Jackson at the same time (Smith 2012, pp. 74-75). Boy says while dancing that he is not only able to dance like Michael Jackson, but also dance the haka like a war hero. He combines both pop culture and Māori culture and presents it in a humorous manner in this key scene which is presented in the credits.




Excerpt out of 17 pages


Forms and Functions of Humor in Indigenous Films
A Comparison between "Boy" by Taika Waititi and "Bran Nue Dae" by Rachel Perkins
University of Frankfurt (Main)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
forms, rachel, bran, waititi, taika, comparison, films, indigenous, humor, functions, perkins
Quote paper
Anonymous, 2017, Forms and Functions of Humor in Indigenous Films, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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