The best-known Indigenous Australian film actor (and film personality) David Gulpilil is the eponymous hero of Charlie’s Country, the third film he has made with director Rolf de Heer. The Tracker appeared in 2002 as de Heer’s version of an early 20th century Australian story and Ten Canoes followed in 2006 as Gulpilil’s attempt to create a story about the history of his own community going back to before the occupation of Australia by Europeans. This third film is resolutely up-to-date. Once again it is written by Gulpilil and de Heer and co-produced by Peter Djigirr who had been the third partner on Ten Canoes. I thought Ten Canoes was a fascinating film. However, the whole point of it was to visit the history of the Yolngu people before the arrival of White Australians, even though the film was inspired by an ethnographic photo archive from the 1930s. The history is a kind of riposte to colonial histories of Indigenous peoples. Charlie’s Country on the other hand is an indictment of a society which requires a great deal of Indigenous Australians today and seemingly offers little in return.
Charlie is a man in his 60s who has had to move out of his house because it has been more or less taken over by his family – “too many people”, he says. He is living in a home-made shelter on the edge of his community in the Northern Territory and he seeks to fend for himself by going back to hunting. This is the basis of his first encounter with the police as he and his friend don’t have hunting licences and the gun they use is confiscated. He makes a spear but this too is confiscated. Everything he wants to do turns out to be illegal or regulated and eventually he decides to return to the bush but he catches pneumonia and ends up in hospital. The narrative is essentially Charlie’s decline in which all his cultural ties are stripped away. (The biggest tie is to the land, which he claims, quite reasonably, is his land.) Charlie will reach rock bottom and then he might just be dragged back from the precipice but what will the future hold? Is there a way for an Indigenous man to survive with dignity and self-control in White Australia? I found the film extremely distressing and I could barely watch at times. I have to concur with reviewers who have said that the face of David Gulpilil – full of character and at times wary and resolute, at others quizzical and sometimes stoical or blank, but always powerfully commanding the screen – is the abiding image of the film.
Perhaps even more distressing than the film is the revelation discussed in several reports that David Gulpilil himself fell into a depression after falling out with other members of his community around the time of the Ten Canoes shoot and that his drinking meant he ended up in prison in Darwin. He was in effect ‘rescued’ by de Heer in 2012 who agreed to make a film with him again. So, although Charlie’s Country is largely fictitious and features events that didn’t happen to Gulpilil, other aspects of the plot did and the central message that Indigenous Australians have been damaged by alcohol, sugar and tobacco (and other drugs) is something that Gulpilil was keen to get across.
The context of the film’s narrative is the ‘Northern Territory Intervention’ instituted by the Federal Government in 2007 and carried on with amendments by succeeding governments. Ostensibly a scheme enabling the federal government to protect children in Indigenous communities from abuse, this controversial measure saw soldiers move into communities and prohibitions set up concerning alcohol and access to pornography. As a federal scheme this went above the heads of local leaders in Northern Territory and at one point overrode Racial Discrimination legislation. The intervention is signalled in the opening shot of the film with a notice referring to restriction orders on buying alcohol. The film assumes understanding of the legislation and without local knowledge international audiences might find many of the actions of the police as particularly aggressive. I’m not sure what to make of them. Charlie seems to know his local police officer quite well – they shout to each other “White Bastard”, “Black Bastard” seemingly in a ‘bantering’ way at the start of the film, but the same policeman doesn’t cut Charlie any slack later on.
According to reviews the film has done well, winning prizes both in Australia and internationally at Cannes and other festivals and later getting a release in 2015 in the US. However, in the UK it got only a marginal cinema release. Shot in CinemaScope ratio, the film has two seemingly distinct modes. In one the camera barely moves and offers us static or slow-moving shots of Charlie in his environment but in the other there is a use of almost montage-like sequences detailing some of the processes Charlie must go through to get welfare payments (pension?) and to buy food and supplies and then the actions that lead to his downfall. De Heer is quite prepared to fix the camera on Charlie’s face for several minutes as we consider what to make of Charlie’s latest predicament. I’m fine with this but I did get irritated by the plaintive piano music which certainly didn’t match my mood. Silence or something angrier might have been more appropriate. I have to point out though that the film has plenty of humour and that’s where its humanity comes through. It has humour and the landscapes are sometimes very beautiful – it is a film to be enjoyed as much as it is a film to move audiences emotionally.
But overall it made me angry and also left me with the feeling that there was something more to say. It’s David Gulpilil’s story and it’s an important story (as I write, I can hear his narration at the opening of Ten Canoes). Charlie’s Country isn’t a straightforward polemic with a clear political message, but it did make me want to ask questions, especially about the rights of people to hunt as they want. Australia is a huge country with plenty of open spaces. It seems perfectly reasonable for Indigenous Australians to hunt in a traditional manner. If regulating firearms is necessary, surely it can be done more sensitively and at lower cost? Is carving a throwing spear really more dangerous than buying a cook’s knife? OK, I haven’t been to Australia and there are many things I don’t know, but I’m sure other viewers outside Australia must have asked similar questions. As it is, some of the high praise for the film does edge towards a kind of ‘noble savage’ response. Yes, David Gulpilil gives an outstanding performance and de Heer allows the story to unfold, enabling questions and discussions. I’m not sure about the ending though. Uncomfortable though it was first time round, I think I’m going to have to watch this one again.
This trailer illustrates most of the points I’ve discussed (awful subtitles though – why so small, eOne?):
There are various interviews with Rolf de Heer about the film. Here’s one of them: