Living in a remote Aboriginal community in the northern part of Australia, Charlie (David Gulpilil) is a warrior past his prime. As the government increases its stronghold over the community’s traditional way of life, Charlie becomes lost between two cultures. His new modern life offers him a way to survive but, ultimately, it is one he has no power over. Finally fed up when his gun, his newly crafted spear and his best friend’s jeep are confiscated, Charlie heads into the wild on his own, to live the old way. However, Charlie hadn’t reckoned on where he might end up, nor on how much life has changed since the old ways...
David Gulpilil has mesmerised audiences ever since his debut at the age of 17 in Nicholas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971). With his lean, graceful dancer’s body and the ability to convey a world of emotion in one sly and silent glance, Gulpilil is an Indigenous actor who has defined and redefined Aboriginality on the Australian screen. From Storm Boy, through to Crocodile Dundee, Rabbit Proof Fence, The Tracker and Satellite Boy, he’s lit up every scene he’s in, leaving audiences craving more – not just of his uncanny charisma and genuine storytelling skills, but of the ways he seems to open up fresh places of understanding between white and Indigenous cultures.
Now, with Charlie’s Country, director Rolf de Heer (Ten Canoes, The Tracker) has collaborated once again with the 60-year-old Gulpilil to create the ultimate leading role for the actor. The camera focuses intently on him in what is a series of long unwavering takes that fully exploits his magnetism. The film does this while also telling a moving and funny story that gives more nuanced insight into the Australian Government’s intervention in the Northern Territory than any news story or documentary ever could.
As a boy, Blackfella Charlie (Gulpilil) danced for the Queen of England at the opening ceremony of the Sydney Opera House. It was the defining event of his life. He has a crumpled photograph which he studies with a reverence, donning his incongruous spectacles and muttering to himself as he remembers the glory. Now in his sixties, Charlie lives in a humpy in his remote ‘dry’ community, where the people live in a state of supervised poverty. The corner shop only serves junk food, which is why Charlie is a hungry bag of bones. The houses are crowded and run down, but there’s a doctor on hand (who tells Charlie to give up the smokes to save his failing lungs) and a police station to maintain order. Craving real food, Charlie wants to hunt bush tucker with his best mate, Black Pete (Peter Djigirr), but when they shoot a buffalo and lug it back on the front of a ute, their unregistered rifles are confiscated, along with the hefty carcass. Undeterred, Charlie fashions a spear for hunting, but Policeman Luke (Luke Ford) is friendly but firm: it’s a weapon and must also be destroyed. With wit and compassion, these scenes illuminate perfectly the farcical misunderstandings that arise when traditional Aboriginal culture and white bureaucracy live side by side.
Frustrated and hungry, Charlie goes deep into the bush to live in the ‘old way’. It’s a triumph and a relief when the starving man, ribs protruding and belly concave, finally catches himself a decent feed, tucking into a piece of grilled barramundi with glee. (He chats and sings lovingly to the fish as he tucks into its white flesh.) But Charlie’s happiness is short-lived when the wet season sets in, and dripping and cold, he’s found half dead of pneumonia and flown into hospital in Darwin. Here he gets into trouble with the grog and the ‘long-grassers’ who camp in the park, and he ends up in jail.
Charlie’s descent into hell is complete when we see his magnificent mane of grey curls shaved off, and that beautiful body, still lean like a boy’s, shrouded in drab baggy prison shorts and thongs. He’s suddenly a little old man with a funny face, broken and stripped of magic. It’s a tragedy to see Gulpilil like this; these scenes were apparently inspired by de Heer’s own visits to Gulpilil while he was in jail, visits where the germ of this fictional story was born.
Rolf de Heer is without a doubt one of Australia’s most interesting and productive auteurs. His low budget modus operandi has always been to use the materials at hand, making necessity the mother of some brilliant inventions. Here, in his fourteenth film, the necessity for de Heer was to create a project for his old friend Gulpilil that would give him hope and a reason to stay out of jail. The other limitations that had to be taken into account included the actor’s damaged health and his inability to remember long lines of dialogue, especially in English. Yet this is turned into a virtue, with the character speaking (often to himself) in an improvised mixture of languages – as Gulpilil does in real life. It’s a strategy that could have gone so wrong, especially in the hands of a less skilled performer and director, and yet here it’s perfect. It’s no wonder Gulpilil won the Best Actor prize in Un Certain Regard at Cannes this year. You can’t take your eyes off him, and he’s not just playing himself.
De Heer has assembled a creative team of frequent collaborators and the result is smooth, beautiful and accomplished filmmaking. Taking full advantage of the stunning natural locations, but always with the actor in the centre of the frame, Charlie’s Country is shot by DOP Ian Jones. While there are many quiet moments and long takes, editor Tania Nehme keeps every scene moving forward. A minimalist piano score (by Graham Tardif) adds the right note of melancholy reflection to a story that is nevertheless very funny at times, and ultimately hopeful.
Powerful, compassionate and a pleasure to watch, Charlie’s Country is without a doubt the must-see Australian film of the year. Don’t miss it.