This film is a ‘companion piece’ to Charlie’s Country (Australia 2013). The earlier film offers a fictional story about Charlie, an Aboriginal man in his 60s who loses control over his life because of a range of factors affecting the lives of most Aboriginal peoples living in an isolated small town in the Northern Territory. Charlie is played by the actor David Gulpilil and in Another Country Gulpilil is the narrator of a documentary about the real small town of Ramingining which provided the setting for the fiction film. Another Country is directed by Molly Reynolds who is the partner of Rolf de Heer. The film is produced by Reynolds, de Heer and David Gulpilil’s friend Peter Djigirr. This quartet has also been responsible for the earlier films The Tracker (2002) and Ten Canoes (2006) and other associated films with each member of the quartet involved in different ways. Further films are in the works.
I’m very pleased to have been able to see Another Country via MUBI in the UK. It had been recommended to me but didn’t appear to be accessible outside Australia. It’s a devastating short(ish) documentary (75 mins) with a simple structure and a deceptive narration by David Gulpilil. I think I understand all the points made in the narration and I think I’m in sympathy with the political analysis, but there are also some aspects of the whole project (i.e. the group of recent films by the quartet mentioned above) which don’t immediately make sense and require the viewer to avoid immediate assumptions.
Ramingining is mainly photographed in Long Shot compositions with long takes with carefully selected medium shots of groups and close-ups of faces and hands working on artworks. These sometimes act as a form of punctuation in the stream of Long Shots. Molly Reynolds seems very careful not to get too close to her subjects and her style here is perhaps best described as ‘sensitive observation’. The portraits generally represent the towns inhabitants in a dignified way. Gulpilil’s narration is soft-spoken and sometimes humorous. It is also a severe condemnation of colonialist policies by successive Australian governments (at national and state level) that have ridden roughshod over cultural differences and have effectively ‘deculturated’ some Aboriginal peoples and caused major problems for others. Gulpilil goes through the several government policies of recent years that carry those mealy-mouthed management speak descriptors like ‘self-determination’ and ‘intervention’ It’s a beautifully written script and as Gulpilil speaks the words, Reynolds’ camera (operated by Matt Nettheim) coolly observes the town and its inhabitants. Gulpilil describes each new policy and explains precisely how they work in contradiction of local culture. As he says, “You (White Australians, but by extension all western/northern societies) say you want to help us, but you think you know more about us than we know ourselves. You don’t. You need to spend more time getting to know us – or leave us alone to do our own things on our own land”. I’m paraphrasing but this is a powerful argument. But, perhaps to give a kind of balance, the narration does admit that the missionaries who came did bring some useful ideas and created some employment. Now there is almost nothing to do in the town (the nearest big centre is 400km away).
At one point, Gulpilil is discussing the concept of ‘rubbish’, now piled up in various parts of Ramingining. We then see a woman by a rubbish dump pick up a broken tree branch and bend it. She moves into the bush, approaches a particular species of palm and uses the branch to pull down some long fronds. She then visits another palm and repeats the process. Gulpilil has been telling us that in his people’s culture there is no concept of ‘rubbish’ – to make something you look for resources in the bush. When your manually ‘manufactured’ object is worn out you return it to the bush and it is re-cycled in a natural process. He explains that the woman is his twin sister and she is collecting the palm leaves to weave a mat. It will take a long time but the Yolngu have plenty of time.
At various points, the narration stops and we observe a ‘set piece’ of some kind. One of these is an Easter ritual. One of Gulpilil’s friends, who ‘found God’ in hospital after suffering a heart attack, is playing the Christ figure in a version of the stations of the cross, stumbling on his way to church carrying his crucifix. I was reminded of the great Sembene Ousmane’s film Ceddo (Senegal 1977) in which American-style soul/gospel music is played in a scene set a century earlier when missionaries arrived in Africa. Looking through the credits I think what I thought was American might be Australian music played during the church scene in Another Country. At first I found these scenes disturbing but later wondered if they had somehow developed into a local ritual. Reynolds films other local rituals/cultural presentations, both ancient and modern as well. The scenes continued to remind me of depictions of Indigenous (or at least pre-colonial) communities in India, Africa and the Americas in various films.
When Gulpilil’s narration refers to the ‘old ways’, I got the impression that Reynold’s camera either found a bush scene with natural light effects or that the film had been processed to produce effects. I was reminded of Ten Canoes and this in turn set up my confusion with the overall presentation of the community. (I should point out that Gulpilil tells us that one of the problems in Ramingining is that the government moved different Indigenous groups, with different customs and languages, into the town and thus created tensions – ‘community’ here means multiple groups.) In Ten Canoes, directed by Rolf de Heer with narration by David Gulpilil and stories from his Yolngu people, we are offered a highly sophisticated film narrative covering three distinct time periods and recreating a traditional annual hunt, by canoe for goose eggs. This required the recreation of rituals last carried out in the 1930s and now almost forgotten but which were captured on archive photographs by an anthropologist. In the promotional material for that film, Gulpilil emphasises how his people are both rooted in their own culture but also plugged in to modern communications such as internet banking. David Gulpilil himself is a complex individual. Australia’s best-known and most honoured Indigenous actor, writer, artist, dancer and more. He first appeared as a teenager in Nic Roeg’s Walkabout (UK-Australia 1971) and has appeared in many Australian films since with all the celebrity implications that implies. Yet he also shares some of the experiences of his character Charlie in Charlie’s Country. He’s had problems in the past with alcohol and he’s been to prison twice he tells us in the narration. He appears in the documentary but he tells us “that’s enough about me” and he doesn’t become a focus for the film overall apart from his narration.
I found Charlie’s Country to be a disturbing and provocative film which I’m still not sure I understood totally. I watched it again recently and wondered if some of the incidents were meant to be ‘dreamt’ rather than actually experienced. After watching Another Country, I’m wondering if this is a ‘personal view’ of Ramingining and that there are other different stories? The experiences of the Yolngu people who have worked with Gulipil, Djigirr, de Heer and Reynolds aren’t directly represented in the film. Perhaps to do so would have made the film too complex and taken something away from or confused the central argument. I don’t know and its difficult to comment without a better knowledge of contemporary Australian culture. I look forward to the future films from the group and I hope that eventually someone will release a DVD or download version in the UK.
The Tracker is an important film and represents a popular culture contribution to telling the early history of the ‘Commonwealth of Australia’. It was released just a few months after Rabbit-Proof Fence. David Gulpilil plays a tracker in both films and, like the earlier film, The Tracker offers a shocking glimpse into the attitudes of some ‘European Australians’ towards Australia’s Indigenous peoples in 1922.
The setting is not specified but writer-director Rolf de Heer chose the ‘wilderness area’ of Arkaroola in the mountains of South Australia for locations. The lack of specific location is mirrored in the names given to the five main characters, each of whom is simply listed in the credits according to their role or personal characteristic. At the beginning of the film the four ‘hunters’ are introduced by onscreen captions. A police officer (not in uniform), the ‘Fanatic, is in charge of a manhunt for an Indigenous man, the Fugitive, who has allegedly killed a white woman. A uniformed younger man, a ‘greenhorn’, the Follower, and an older ‘auxiliary’ man, the Veteran, make up the ‘posse’ (the film is very close to a Hollywood Western in several ways). The trio on horseback lead a separate packhorse. The tracker is on foot – an Indigenous man who is not ‘native’ to these parts.
Two other artistic devices (i.e. in addition to the lack of names) are the use of songs and paintings. There are ten songs all sung by Archie Roach, a well-known and popular Indigenous country singer. The songs, mainly in English, act as a kind of commentary on the progress of the narrative, performed in a range of styles including some Ry Cooder-like slide guitar. The paintings by the South Australian artist Peter Coad are used in the film to illustrate the violent scenes in the narrative, which are often ‘off-screen’. I should note here that in order to acquire a DVD to watch, I had to import one from Italy and, although the quality was fine, I discovered that the song lyrics and the opening titles introducing the characters were subtitled in Italian (in a very large typeface) and these were ‘burned in’ – unlike the dialogue subtitles which I could turn off. This was annoying, although I probably learned some Italian and it increased the ‘distancing effect’ of the other three artistic devices.
The film looks terrific and the choice of landscapes is inspired. There is little dialogue and relatively little ‘action’ as such – but when it comes it is worth the wait. The story is told through the performances and the camerawork. Gulpilil is excellent as usual with his jokey, happy-go-lucky demeanour masking the intelligence behind his eyes and his silent battle with Gary Sweet as the Fanatic is compelling. I haven’t seen an Australian Western that so clearly refers to Hollywood Westerns. As the quartet move through scrubland and over mountain passes I was constantly reminded of those Westerns in which a US cavalry unit with a ‘native tracker’ is looking for ‘renegade Apache’ – Ulzana’s Raid would be the classic example. The hunt in The Tracker takes the quartet through the lands of a different Indigenous community and just like the Apache these people will lose some members to the Fanatic’s rifle, but will also ultimately outwit him. The Tracker also reminds me of those classic Budd Boetticher Westerns from the 1950s with small casts and groups of characters with different moral positions and ways of dealing with adversity.
The Fanatic is an accomplished hunter who understands the terrain, but he’s also a confirmed racist who treats Indigenous people with contempt. He’s the kind of man who finds himself respecting the Tracker’s skill and cunning, but who probably puts this down to the Tracker being ‘half-civilised’. In a different way, the position of the Veteran is also disturbing because he says nothing and does nothing to stop the Fanatic’s verbal and physical attacks. The Follower is the morally upright young man whose own attitudes are more conflicted – he will follow orders and is determined to do his job, but not at all costs. He is the product of a racist colonial society but has the possibility of changing. The script is on the side of righteousness and you can probably work out what will happen, but not how it will happen. I found it very satisfying. I particularly liked the presentation of different groups of Indigenous people rather than the undifferentiated ‘other’ of mainstream cinema.
The Tracker is the first of three films made by the partnership of Rolf de Heer and David Gulpilil. Ten Canoes followed in 2006 and Charlie’s Country in 2013. The trilogy offers a powerful presentation of Australian history from the perspective of Indigenous peoples personalised around David Gulpilil (and in Ten Canoes, his son). I’ll post on Charlie’s Country soon. Here’s a clip from an early part of the film featuring an Archie Roach song about each of the five characters in turn – ‘All Men Choose the Path They Walk’.
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: