"If I hide anything it wouldn’t be a true depiction," says Jack Charles, as he pops a needle in his arm. An actor, Aboriginal elder, ex-junkie, cat burglar and jailbird, Jack has a hell of a story to tell and he does so with noteworthy candour. As a 19-year-old he performed on stage, eventually founding the first Aboriginal theatre company; at 58, except for the occasional acting gig, he sleeps on Melbourne streets – when he’s not doing time. As he puts it, "I f**ked up each and every chance."
Director Amiel Courtin-Wilson takes no small steps in his documentary, Bastardy, though the same can’t be said for its central protagonist, Jack Charles, who shuffles about Melbourne’s inner-city streets with a withering gait for much of the film’s running time.
Courtin-Wilson paints the great Aboriginal actor with bold, textured brush strokes, in a film that reveres the accomplishments and exposes the terrible flaws of a man who projects contentment but who inwardly struggles with his life as an artist, elder, homosexual, thief and addict.
The power of make-believe helped to transport him from the institutionalised young life he had endured as a member of The Stolen Generation. From the moment he discovered the redemptive joy of acting at age 17, Jack Charles was committed to life as an artistic representative of indigenous culture. Bastardy brings into sharp focus the impact he had not only upon a generation of Aboriginal actors, writers and activists, but also the role he played in making a white Australia accept a black man on stage and screen.
The presentation of Charles’ legacy as an actor and his contribution to the performing arts is handled with due respect, acknowledging straightforwardly Charles’ status as one of the premier character actors in this country’s theatrical history. The sense of melancholy that washes over the viewer when presented with scenes of the strong, healthy young black man that enervated the iconic films The Chant Of Jimmy Blacksmith, Bedevil and Blackfellas is deeply moving.
Today, the reputation remains and the spirit is strong, but the man is decaying. He is a heroin addict; he admits to using for over 30 years and the film is frank in its depiction of Charles injecting and succumbing to the drug. He is homeless; Courtin-Wilson’s portrait opens on an anonymous man, who we learn to be Charles, asleep on a cardboard bed under a stairwell. And he is a thief; there is a rogueish charm to Jack’s recollections of robberies committed in some of Melbourne’s affluent suburbs, but the desperation behind his criminal acts is exposed when the filmmaker busts him for stealing from a friend of the production.
Amiel Courtin-Wilson is a hugely talented filmmaker. He draws upon a broad spectrum of imagery (through the use of several different formats – Super 8, 16mm, DVCAM, HDV) to create the world as Jack Charles may see it (harsh but hopeful, dreamlike, virtuous in its smallest detail) and his world as we assume it to be (blurred, abstract, insular). The film, like the addict it portrays, appears to wander without direction, distracted by sunlight or a discarded smoke, yet never loses sight of the ultimate goal. For Jack Charles, that goal is heroin; for the filmmaker, it is the provision of insight and understanding.
The most significant achievement of Bastardy is its confidence to allow the viewer scope to interpret its intentions. As a portrait of a damaged man, ravaged by substance abuse and poorly exploiting the natural gifts bestowed upon him, the film is insightful, personal and candid; more broadly, Courtin-Wilson invites the viewer to see his film as a commentary – society’s shameful disdain for the homeless, Australia’s disregard for its fallen artists, the inexplicable invisibility – to all but those that know him – of an old man junkie. Bastardy never demands you consider these themes, but it trusts you will.
Just before the film ends, Jack Charles attends a small ceremony during which he receives the Tudawali Award for services to the positive representation of indigenous culture within the media. For just a few minutes, he is off the streets, out of prison, off the gear – he is in a joyful moment. Amiel Courtin-Wilson could have left the audience on a high, ensured we all felt better about this man’s life. But there are three minutes left in the film – three minutes that remind us this man’s story is not finished, that happiness does not always come with the end credits.
When we first see Jack shoot heroin, he says to camera 'If I hide anything, it wouldn’t be a true depiction". Those final three minutes reflect the honesty and integrity of the film as a whole, and Courtin-Wilson should be applauded for honouring Jack’s willingness to participate, even if Jack himself is occasionally shocked by the filmmaker’s incisiveness.