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’ve seen Ten Canoes but not The Tracker. 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:
Last Friday I found myself in Leeds city centre with several hours to fill. I wanted to participate in a Palestinian Solidarity Group demonstration for the 67th anniversary of the ‘nakba’: which did not start to 5 p.m. I have to say that there was not a great selection of films available last week. The Vue in the Leeds Light was screening Mad Max: Fury Road, just released. The Guardian review awarded it four stars, though I also noted that it suggested that the film had a very loud soundtrack. So I took the precaution of purchasing a set of ear plugs: a wise precaution as it turned out.
At the Vue I found myself just behind five people in the queue. However, they had to buy any food at the same time as their tickets. So by the time I reached the ticket position there were now about two dozen people in the queue behind me. The ticket cost me £1.50p more than usual. When I queried this I was told that it was ‘dynamic marketing’. When asked what that meant I was told that this was because it was a popular film: we ended up with about forty punters in the auditorium!
Since it is not possible to determine exactly how long the adverts and trailers run there I caught some of the former. They were as naff as usual. They also included ‘cineme’; which encourages audience members to use their mobile phones and tablets to answer quiz questions. However, there was no subsequent warning to switch them off again. The trailers included two for a forthcoming release, San Andreas. The title suggests the plot-line: I am surprised that it has taken so long since the advent of CGI and 3D to get round to this treatment. When the feature started, in 2.39:1, there was no appropriate masking though the Vue does have masking equipment which used to operate.
Mad Max: Fury Road (Australia, 2015) is essentially an action movie using some of the characters and tropes from the original. There are some impressive sequences and settings: some of the CGI is impressive, but some is rather obvious. The film lacks the sort of devil-may-care charisma of Mel Gibson: Tom Hardy as Max looks more like a James Bond hero. Charlize Theron is as good as the script allows as the wonderfully named Imperator Furiosa. The other characters reminded me of a trailer I saw for Game of Thrones (and similar fantasy series). The film also lacks the intentional humour of the original. I laughed a lot, the rest of the audience less so but still occasionally.
As I left the multiplex I sought out the price list, not exactly in an obvious position. Apparently I was correctly charged. I then had a pot of tea and read the whole Guardian review. I never quite worked out why Peter Bradshaw had awarded it four stars. His headline read:
The legendary Aussie-post apocalyptic road warrior rides again – as extravagantly deranged as ever …
Sort of true, though I would query the ‘as ever …’. This is a ‘post-modern’ version. To paraphrase Claude Rains in Lawrence of Arabia
I wished I had stayed with the original.
I recently read Roy’s review of Suite Française where he took Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian to task. So I went back and read Bradshaw’s review and whilst I could sympathise with Roy’s contentions over the language of the review I still disagreed with Roy’s actual assessment of that film. However Peter Bradshaw is a novice when it comes to invective in comparison to the review of this film by Thirza Wakefield in Sight & Sound (April 2015). Does Wakefield have a personal grudge against Russell Crowe, director and star of the film? It reminded me of the vitriolic obituary by Tony Rayns of Akira Kurosawa.
Apart from hyping up her comments Wakefield misses out on a crucial element in the film: its treatment of the Turks in relation to the colonial war prosecuted by Britain and its allies. The film opens as Turkish troops invade the trenches of the allied forces (mainly Australian troops) to discover that they have ‘retreated’ / ‘evacuated’. The film spends a good deal of attention on the Turkish position on the war and its aftermath. Something that is rare in mainstream war movies . . . We have a major Turkish protagonist and some telling comments on both the allied conduct in the war and their conduct in the post-war settlement.
Or course rooting for the Turks means that the Greeks become villains: even so it is refreshing. And given this is an Australian film the representation of British officers is negative: deservedly. The review is rightly critical of the representation of women, and the conventionality of the plot. However, there is a whole dynamic of the treatment that seems to have passed the reviewer by.
The film is, by and large, conventional. And Russell Crowe does not show great promise as a director. But he clearly has a distinctive view on these past events. Anzac Day, the anniversary of the Gallipoli campaign, is one of the more reactionary memorials in Australian culture. Germaine Greer has rightly taken it to task. But this film does not valorise those events or its memory. And whilst it ends up valorising the male protagonist and aspects of Australian culture: its treatment of a distinctive foreign culture is not common in Australian cinema.
Quite a few good films coming out of Oz in the last year or two I think. The Babadook is intriguing and I’m still thinking about it. There seem to be several references to classic haunted house/melodrama/demonic possession movies of the 1960s-80s though I worry that I might not recognise the modern references so I can’t really comment on how ‘fresh’ it is. But for a low budget Kickstarter-aided film from a relatively inexperienced director it is pretty impressive. There aren’t enough horror films made by women and it’s interesting that the most frightening scene in Jennifer Kent’s movie for me was the clutch of glammed-up young mothers at a children’s birthday party with their matching gift bags – very ‘Stepford Wives’!
The Babadook is that old standby, a magic or ‘possessed’ book, in this instance a child’s pop-up book with rather interesting drawings (charcoal or pen and ink?). The book finds its way into the decidedly Gothic old house of Amelia, the widowed mother of 6 year-old Samuel. Samuel’s father was killed driving his wife to hospital on the night she gave birth and Samuel’s upcoming birthday is a significant date. Amelia is sleeping badly and Samuel is a difficult child who is driving her to distraction with his fears about monsters. Neither of them need the further pressure of a new monster threatening to cause havoc and terror in the household. But once you’ve read the book, your fate is apparently sealed . . .
I was amazed to read that the film’s producer suggested that this was an ‘arthouse film’ and that this explained why it had only a limited release in Australia. The Guardian reported that the film made more in the first weekend of its UK release (on 147 screens) than in its entire release in Australia. Australian distribution seems to be in even more of a crisis than in the UK.
It isn’t an art film for me, rather an intelligent genre film that marries the familiar tropes of the haunted house/demonic possession genre with the good old family melodrama. Apart from Samuel and the demon/ghost, the only other male character who appears more than once is the nice young man at the care home where Amelia works. Much more significant are Amelia’s sister and the older woman next door. Essie Davis is very good as Amelia and she joins Deborah Kerr (The Innocents), Nicole Kidman (The Others) and Bélen Rueda (The Orphanage) as a woman under pressure trying to cope with small children. The Babadook doesn’t have the budget of those earlier films and it doesn’t have the allegorical status of the latter two, but it is distinctive. I’m not sure how ‘Australian’ it is – or whether this matters. (In terms of its difficulties in getting a wide release in Australia, this seems contradictory – the more an Australian film is recognised by overseas audiences first, the better chance it is supposed to have with domestic audiences who respond to foreign commendations. At least, that’s how I read comments from Australia.)
The colour palette is drained and costumes have generally been chosen in muted colours. Added to that, the costumes look very old-fashioned (is this a period film?) and the actors in minor roles have unusual faces and expressions. Check out the trailer below. The television seems to play a bizarre range of violent cartoons and a selection of films that includes Mario Bava(!), George Méliès and a Barbara Stanwyck ‘woman in peril’ noir. (It appears to be The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, when it should be Sorry, Wrong Number?) The more I think about the film, the more references come to mind. Although the stories are different in terms of the ghost, there are strong connections to the Nakata Hideo film Dark Water (Japan 2002) which was in turn remade by Walter Salles for Hollywood. The social pressures on Amelia as a single mother are not as great as in the Japanese context but they are definitely there.
I think the film deserves its generally very good critical reception and I’m glad it seems to be attracting audiences. My only complaint would be that having imposed restraint for three quarters of the film, Jennifer Kent perhaps let go too much in the final quarter, changing the overall tone of the film.