When Aborigine actor, dancer and activist David Gulpipil was just sixteen he starred in Nicolas Roeg’s masterful Walkabout (1971), accompanying the director and his co-star Jenny Agutter to the Cannes Croisette for the film’s world premiere. Unfortunately, tribal business meant that he was unable to attend the first showing of his new film, Charlie’s Country (2013), for which he also won the Best Actor award in the Un Certain Regard sidebar. His third collaboration with Dutch-Australian director Rolf de Heer – the others being The Tracker (2002) and Ten Canoes (2006) – Gulpipil also co-wrote the script for Charlie’s Country, basing the story partly on his own experiences of discrimination and hardship.
Charlie (Gulpipil) is an ageing “blackfella” who lives in an alcohol-free community. Occasionally, a group gathers on the border to drink grog and smoke ganja brought in by white dealers. However, Charlie is becoming increasingly unhappy with his position in society. His good-natured joshing of the local police officer Luke (Luke Ford) (“G’day ya white bastard”) begins to sound more bitter. He resents the fact he doesn’t have a house, he’s always hungry and the culture around him is increasingly that of the white man. His liberties are also infringed by laws and regulations he doesn’t fully understand and certainly hasn’t consented to. When he goes hunting with his friend Pete (Peter Djigirr), the pair are quizzed by passing police about licenses for their firearms: “I’m gonna shoot it, not drive it!” he laughs.
With Charlie’s patience pushed to the limit and his healthy failing – partly due to malnutrition – he heads for the bush to live like the old ways, but our protagonist is no longer up to the rigours of bush. It’s a telling irony that the attempt made to save his life by evacuating him to a hospital in Darwin almost costs Charlie his soul, throwing him as it does into an urban life of alcoholism and into the sights of a far more hostile police force. The second half of the film is weaker than the first, following a predictable trajectory with some unnecessary underlining. Moving Officer Luke to Darwin in time to arrest Charlie seems a ham-fisted reveal of the latent racism behind the mate-ocracy of his bonhomie, but this was obvious from the start and the coincidence renders the episode too preachy. Using improvisation and switching between English and Yolngu, de Heer has created a natural portrait of a man at odds with his times and the society around him. Charlie yearns for the old days, but a nuanced touch also means this isn’t simply a mere political hunger.
De Heer also captures the cultural differences of the Aboriginal people, such as the relaxed notions in regard to private property (Charlie nonchalantly ‘borrows’ a police car). But his is not a romanticised picture; when Peter and a village elder visit him in Darwin they most object to his shacking up with a woman from the wrong tribe, bringing shame on the community as they see it. Sometimes, de Heer’s visuals on their own tell the story. A fire put out by the beginning of a tropical rain storm perfectly expresses the dampening of Charlie’s ambition to live in the outback. Likewise, an overhead shot of prison food being served sums up the inhuman repetition of jail. However, most powerful of all is Gulpilil’s performance. His presence at the centre of the film is one of anger, humour and ultimately resilience. For all the justly-levelled criticisms of Australia’s marginalisation and humiliation of the Aborigines, Charlie’s Country is far more than a j’accuse; it’s a celebration of a man’s struggle for dignity and a place in a world that’s rapidly moving on.
The 67th Cannes Film Festival takes place from 14-25 May 2014. For more Cannes coverage, simply follow this link.