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Charlie’s Country (LFF with Rolf de Heer interview)

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Legendary Aboriginal actor and dancer David Gulpilil (Walkabout, Tracker, Ten Canoes) stars in this heart-rending film of contemporary racism in the white-ruled society of Australia.

Charlie’s Country is potentially the final part of a trilogy on Aboriginal culture, another collaboration between writer/director Rolf de Heer and David Gulpilil that follows the depiction of pre-colonial Aboriginal life in Ten Canoes and the tumultuous relationship between a racist officer and an Indigenous Australian tracker in the early 20th century Australian outback in Tracker. In their newest film, de Heer and Gulpilil present a shattering indictment of the consequences of colonial rule through the life of Charlie, a lone warrior lost between two cultures.

Charlie (Gulpilil) lives in the town of Ramingining, inhabited by an Indigenous community that is supervised by a white police force. The days go by in a sort of institutionalised routine, which clashes with the sort of free lifestyle Charlie yearns for. The film shows him wandering, chatting with friends, expressing disdain at the disappearance of his culture and at a code of ethics that is alien to him. At a turning point in the film, Charlie (unwilling to eat ‘white-man junk food’) and his friend have their guns and prey confiscated by the police, on the grounds that killing animals with unlicensed firearms is illegal. Charlie crafts a spear and goes hunting again but the same story repeats itself. The unfairness inspires him to venture on his own into the forest and live a serene life, the old way.

Loneliness pervades, he is separated from his community, his ancestors gone in the sands of time, in a country that now isn’t his. Later, he is surprised by torrential rain, which heavily affects his already perilous health and renders him gravely ill. He is found unconscious by the police and transferred to a hospital in Darwin, which he quickly escapes from, only to start an alcohol and drug-fuelled friendship with Faith (Jennifer Budukpuduk), a homeless Indigenous woman living on a campsite in the city. After an altercation with the police, Charlie is sentenced to prison. In a harrowing real-time sequence, as Charlie’s beard and thick mane of hair are shaved off; we see the utter expression of despair in his eyes, the last strip of freedom gone. If the film attempts to convey that Charlie’s actions were wrong and illegal, we are also shown the complex series of unfair circumstances and demeaning behaviour that led him to act in such a way.

The limitation of personal autonomy in Ramingining, the condescending attitude of the police, and the austere silence of the hospital compared to the wild freedom of the untouched forest form an image of two very different worlds colliding. Gulpilil’s performance is a wonder to behold; his extraordinary face is more than adequately able to portray the tragedy of Charlie’s downfall. Yet the film provides lingering moments of joy and laughter; for instance, soulful contemplations of Charlie as a young man performing traditional dances at the Sydney Opera House in front of the Queen. Indeed, the last moments of Charlie’s Country offer an enduring message of hope and reconnection; the most important aspect of this being that Charlie’s unique sense of self remains unbroken and entirely his own.

During a fascinating interview with director Rolf de Heer, we touched on many subjects, the first of which was his collaboration with David Gulpilil. He considers him a brother, a friend – and insisted that ‘in this world he cannot think of a more complete actor’, calling him ‘the perfect combination between instinct and intelligence’. Their professional relationship has been fruitful (in that he perceives that they are on the same wavelength) yet difficult (due to cultural clashes): Indigenous Australians find asking direct questions very offensive, for example. Furthermore, the culture of Indigenous Australians focuses primarily on the past and the present; a limited concept of the future thus asks a certain amount of patience of their collaborator. de Heer explained that aspects of Indigenous culture have private meaning, which evidently cannot be revealed to outsiders; there had been times when the director had to respect their wishes, and not divulge their knowledge via his filmic medium. On enquiring about the Indigenous Australian reaction to the film, de Heer first informed me that the community tend to search for what is ‘real’ and ‘in the moment’, which they find more interesting than fiction. Yet, he did state that those in the community who did watch the film enjoyed it (despite distractions of a nearby dogfight and a snake!). As the film is semi-autobiographical, drawing on Gulpilil’s own troubled life, he became angry and emotional on watching the injustices depicted on screen. In regards to this irreconcilable societal imbalance, de Heer explained that it is not something that can or will go away quickly. He expressed hope in the new federal government, which is apparently taking action to better the position of Indigenous peoples in Australian society. In response to my final question, which commented on the notion of ‘living the old way’ (because such nostalgia is a more universal element of the film), he justly stated that it is impossible to continue living that way – it is gone, cultures change, and we have to adapt.

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