Rolf de Heer talks about how his own bid to avert a personal tragedy spawned a trilogy of films about cultural identity, which starts with Charlie's Country.
18 Jul 2014 - 5:02 PM  UPDATED 18 Jul 2014 - 5:26 PM

Writer/director Rolf de Heer’s latest film, the deeply moving Charlie’s Country, has just opened in Australian cinemas. It is his third with veteran actor David Gulpilil, who won the best actor award in Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival this year for his title performance.

By Sandy George

In Charlie’s Country, a man goes bush to escape the police who are interfering in his life, and also because he believes it is the only way he will stay alive. The film is one of three that Rolf de Heer and Molly Reynolds – the pair live together in southern Tasmania – are calling their “country suite” of films. The second, the free-ranging and visually lush Still Our Country – Reflections on a Culture, is showing at the Melbourne International Film Festival and documents the contemporary life of the Yolngu people of Ramingining in the Northern Territory. The third is the more overtly political, classically constructed and not yet completed Another Country, narrated by Gulpilil. Reynolds directed both these feature-length documentaries. Ramingining and/or Darwin is the setting for all three and each speak to something that Gulpilil says at the beginning of Another Country: “What happened to my culture when it was disrupted by your culture?” One thing that happened was the arrival of bad food and bad disease.

In early 2012, Rolf de Heer travelled nearly 4,000 kilometres to Darwin after hearing that veteran actor David Gulpilil was in a correctional centre there. Struck by his fragility and with his welfare in mind, the director asked his friend what he wanted to do when he was released. “Make a film with you,” Gulpilil said. That night, de Heer came up with a plan that depended on a lot of input from Gulpilil about his experiences, politics and passions: Charlie’s Country was born. De Heer physically wrote the script, often working at a hotel nearby, and they have co-writing credits. One of the delightful and infectious aspects of the film is its humour. Here’s an example below. Playing Black Pete opposite Gulpilil is Peter Djigirr, also the film’s producer alongside de Heer and Nils Erik Nielsen.

Rolf de Heer has worked with Gulpilil twice previously on The Tracker and Ten Canoes, and with Luke Ford once before on The King Is Dead! In other words, he’d never worked with them together until Charlie’s Country, in which Luke plays a police officer.

“Luke is terrific,” de Heer says. “If David was flagging a bit, Luke would stir him up and get him going. He worked incredibly hard to make David look good, creating his character so it would work well for David’s character, but not neglecting his own character. There’s a lot of actors I like working with and, as you can see, there’s a lot of them in there. It just so happened that Luke scored the longest and biggest gig. Somebody had to.”

Underpinning Charlie’s Country is the impact of the Howard Government’s “intervention” in 2007. De Heer reckons he’s lived in Ramingining for about a year all told, before and after the package of new policies were applied to Aboriginal communities under the intervention. He says he has never seen as much alcohol consumed as now.

“They were a self-imposed dry community [previously],” de Heer recalls, noting that kava was also banned. “Now there’s a whole lot of smuggling and home-brewing going on. The alcohol causes social dislocation because there’s more misbehaviour as a consequence.” He pauses, then continues: “And now there’s cops… And now that there is a major police presence a lot of people are getting arrested and sent to Darwin, which never used to happen. It’s complex. A lot of people also appreciate that there’s a police station.”

If de Heer was Prime Minister what would he do? “I would call both houses together and say, ‘We have to start here, now, and make this completely bipartisan. We have to promise and swear to never again do anything that brings it back into a three-year election cycle.’ It’s a problem that is going to take hundreds of years to fix and only if we are completely bipartisan can we make a 200-year plan.”