Australian national cinema is multitudinous. But as with any country with a colonial past, white people tell most of our stories.
Towards the end of 2011, filmmaker Rolf de Heer learned that David Gulpilil was in jail. Flying from Tasmania to Darwin to visit his estranged friend, de Heer realised ‘that the only thing I might be able to do for him was to make a film with him’.
De Heer refocuses the conversation about aiding someone in crisis through his realisation that actually helping means changing ‘to do for’ to ‘make with’. White Australia still exercises power structures – authorial and ideological – over Indigenous Australia but changing the mindset from for to with seems like a good place to start when thinking about change. Our current political landscape is pretty grim and if you caught John Pilger’s examination of government efforts to ‘close the gap’ (Utopia, 2013), then your view of the current state of things is probably less than hopeful. It’s also true that we haven’t had culpability on the agenda for very long. Kevin Rudd only apologised in 2008 and Tony Abbott seems hell bent on reigniting the history wars. His recent sound bites he’s forced into our cultural agenda include his description of this great land mass as ‘unsettled’ before the British arrived and his further musings about how Australia ‘owes its existence to Britain’s “form of foreign investment” in the land’.
At a time when the conversation seems to be moving backwards, it’s something of a relief to see one of society’s greatest mirrors (the big screen) used to its full potential. Cinema is art but it’s also a tool through which we create and distribute collective memory.
De Heer wrote Charlie’s Country with Gulpilil. Though the film is unmistakably the work of auteur Rolf de Heer, it is also David Gulpilil’s story. Bringing together a cast and crew that de Heer has worked with previously – actors Peter Djigirr, Bobby Bunugurr and Frances Djuibing (Ten Canoes, 2006), and Luke Ford and Gary Waddell (The King is Dead!, 2012), along with cinematographer Ian Jones, composer Graham Tardif and editor Tania Nehme – Charlie’s Country must be viewed and discussed as a collaborative effort.
In a recent Q&A at Melbourne’s Cinema Nova, de Heer was determined to make clear that the story is fiction. The reason so much of it seems like David’s story specifically is because Gulpilil draws heavily from his own life for inspiration. The depiction of alcoholism, imprisonment, housing and healthcare shortages, police oppression, animosity, misunderstanding, exploitation and so many other elements of post-colonial society are what make the film so affecting. The strength of Charlie’s Country is that it operates simply and brilliantly on a narrative level, while also engaging with broader social issues, making sure that underrepresented post-colonial problems stay on the agenda.
For all the important concerns the film raises, it’s also a joy to watch. David Gulpilil brings pathos and humour to one of his finest screen roles yet. He also brings the weight of every role he’s embodied onscreen up until this point to his performance: the young boy from Walkabout (1971) who charmed us all with his smile, stature and talent but was poorly remunerated; the cultural Other from Crocodile Dundee (1986); the tracker in both Rabbit-Proof Fence and de Heer’s The Tracker (both 2002); our gateway storyteller in Ten Canoes (2006); the grandfather keeping Indigenous culture alive in Catriona McKenzie’s Satellite Boy (2012); as well as so many other significant characters across our screen history.
His role is characterised just as much by humour as it is by anger. There are many problems with the intersection between white culture and blackfella ways and through Gulpilil’s performance we see these as funny as well as infuriatingly unjust. Cinematographer Ian Jones follows David Gulpilil carefully and respectfully with his camera, allowing Charlie to show us something about the pace, ethos and struggle of his life.
In terms of what we see in this film, it’s never a single viewpoint, which is arguably Charlie’s Country’s greatest strength. It’s important that minority groups, and especially those whose history is one of oppression, are encouraged and given appropriate platforms from which to tell their stories, not least because they bring with them the promise of greater authenticity: underrepresentation also implies misinterpretation. But on the other hand, a diversity of perspectives should work to enrich our understanding of such complex, fractious issues.
Charlie’s Country is like everything and nothing we’ve ever seen in Australian cinema before. In places the story was improvised on set, with changes informed by a commitment to the Indigenous communities and cultures with which the film engages, while staying true to Gulpilil and de Heer’s understanding of the integrity of the story they want to tell. A fine example of what our cultural memory, as crafted through cinema, can look like, Charlie’s Country gives us so much hope for the future – for both the industry and contemporary Australia. That’s not to say that there aren’t still taboos to be broken, truths to be heard, pains to endure and struggles to overcome. It is, after all, one story. But it’s really important that this one is seen and heard.