• David Gulpilil, Father, Grandfather, Brother, Actor, Artist, Ceremonial Dancer, Hunter & Tracker. (NITV)Source: NITV
"Never forget me", David Gulpili AM, born at Gurarlil in Arnhem Land, is distant from the mainstream and yet enormously popular and loved. He defines many of the films, our nation is most proud of.
Sophie Verass, Julie Nimmo

7 Jul 2019 - 12:38 PM  UPDATED 8 Jul 2019 - 10:10 AM

This year's NAIDOC Lifetime Achievement Award recognises the enormous contribution of David Gulpilil Ridjimiraril Dalaithngu as a father, grandfather, brother, actor, artist, ceremonial dancer, hunter and tracker.

The impact of this artist cannot be underestimated. Through his compelling performances, almost every Australian would recognise his powerful gaze and illuminating smile.

If you ask yourself, what do Australia’s highest grossing films have in common?

Many iconic films like Babe, Happy Feet and Red Dog, feature cute animals as leading protagonists. Several, like Moulin Rouge, The Great Gatsby and Strictly Ballroom, are directed by eccentric and colourful filmmaker Baz Lurhmann. But if we consider the most unashamedly nationalistic films like Australia (2008), or the hugely successful Crocodile Dundee franchises (1986), they all feature David Gulpilil. 

Born in 1953, David was a schoolboy when a British filmmaking team came looking to cast an 'Aboriginal boy who could throw a spear, dance and sing'. And they said, "yeah, he's alright." David says he was "very surprised".

This was how his powerhouse career began, as a sixteen-year-old, with a leading role in an internationally famous film, Walkabout (1971).  

"I made a lot of movies, and many many awards I won from the films," said David during a recent interview with NITV. "It gave me a lot of opportunity to be a good and the best actor in Australia." [sic] 

David then shared a very personal moment, with resignation "but [it's] sad for me, I'm sick too... cancer. I'm sick."

"To everyone, thank you very much for watching me,"

"Never forget me. While I am here, I will never forget you. I will still remember you, even though I am gone forever, I will still remember." 

"Never forget me. While I am here, I will never forget you. I will still remember you, even though I am gone forever, I will still remember."

At 66-years-of-age, his body of work can be measured by the impact on young and old.

Many cinema lovers around the world would have fond memories from their childhood, watching his award-winning film, Storm Boy (1976), which he himself describes as his "favourite movie".

David is the person we all know, love and trust. His gifted performances transformed the stereotypical image of Aboriginal people into nuanced and accurate representations of Aboriginality.

Appearing with absolute confidence on big cinematic screens at a time when 'blackface' was the norm, David Gulpilil changed the industry and the nation for the better. He became a leading man and non-Aboriginal portrayals of First Nations people would never acceptable again.

In all his films, Gulpilil infused his own cultural knowledge and identity into his characters. He portrayed the demeanour, skills and knowledge of a man of high degree within an Aboriginal cultural context. Over the course of his career, he dignified and enriched the representation of Aboriginality beyond the understanding of any non-Indigenous scriptwriter or director.

David Gulpilil has achieved what most actors can only dream about. Not only did his reach the pinnacle of an  acting career, he was a peerless dancer, who was for a time the most renowned ceremonial dancer in Australia, gracing the Sydney Opera House stage to dance for Queen Elizabeth II.

Following a standout performance in Crocodile Dundee (1986), Gulpilil was recognised for his services to the arts in the 1987 Queen’s Birthday Honours List, being awarded the Member of the Order of Australia.

Gulpilil's recent films, The Tracker, Ten Canoes along with The Proposition have all received acclaimed recognition, positioned on the 25 greatest Australian films of the 21st Century list. He introduced audiences to traditional practices and familiarised them with Aboriginal forms of interpersonal communication.

The Tracker (2002) is the one that David believes, is his "best film". It screened in competition at the Venice Film Festival and was awarded the Special Jury Prize at the Valladolid Film Festival. Gulpilil himself won every significant Australian best actor award for his portrayal of the enigmatic tracker.

David's collaborator on the trilogy of films about his life and people, is Rolf de Heer.

 “I've seen Charlie's Country and The Tracker hundreds of times; I've heard David's storytelling in Ten Canoes all over the world," Heer has said. "But every time I experience any of them again, I'm captured. Captured by David, and his ability to be in the moment, to project a character's intent, to be mysterious and interesting and engaging on screen”.  

Gulpilil is more wry, however. He jokes to NITV as he reflects on his life.

“I thought I was going to be a big movie star … but I just ended up as a big movie star.” 

But he’s being too humble. David has been awarded top industry awards, including the Un Certain Regard Best Actor Award at Cannes, and has rubbed shoulders with the likes of Bob Dylan, Bob Marley and even, John Lennon.

But as impressive as these Hollywood accolades are, more importantly, Gulpilil has redefined Australian and international cinema.

At the time of the release of one of his most personal films, Charlie's Country, David told the Guardian, “I’m a ballerina, a dancer, I’m an artist, I’m a writer and I studied the Earth, same as David Attenborough.” 

Not satisfied with cinema alone, David has written two volumes of children's stories based on his people's beliefs. He has performed a one-man autobiographical show to great acclaim on the stages of the Adelaide Festival of Arts and Sydney's Belvoir Street Theatre. And he paints, in his own distinct but traditionally evolved style, paintings which convey his reverence for the landscape, people and traditional culture of his homeland.

Gulpilil's dedication to provide audiences with the best possible cinematic experience, reflects his visionary leadership, wealth of experience and immeasurable commitment to the big screen.

“If we remember that David started his career shortly after the 1967 Referendum, granting Australian citizenship to Aboriginal people, we get some idea of what a trailblazer he has been, how by the sheer quality of his work, and his almost magical presence, he has forged a path that wasn't there before, one that others have since been able to follow," said Rolf de Heer. 

David has always understood the responsibility on his shoulders, "what I’m doing is introducing the country of Australia [to the world].”


David Gulpilil currently lives in South Australia due to his failing health.

He remains an inspiration to many people across the country. Through the trials and tribulations of his life he has remained true to his people, his culture and his identity as a Yolngu man.

David's daughters Makia McLaughlin and Phoebe Marson accepted the award on behalf of their father, as illness prevented him from attending the awards ceremony.

The SBS network is celebrating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and recognising the achievements of our First Peoples throughout National NAIDOC Week (7-14 July). For programs, movies, articles and info, go here.

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