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CANNES – Ever since his indelible first appearance at age 16 in Nicolas Roeg‘s Walkabout, David Gulpilil to a large extent has been the defining face onscreen of the Indigenous Australian. Now 60, the Aboriginal actor and traditional dancer teams for the third time with director Rolf de Heer — following The Tracker and Ten Canoes — on Charlie’s Country, inarguably the most personal project of their collaboration. Equal parts ethnographic and poetic, this eloquent drama’s stirring soulfulness is laced with the sorrow of cultural dislocation but also with lovely ripples of humor and even joy.
Gulpilil co-wrote the film with de Heer, starting on the project while the actor was serving prison time and then subsequently in a drug and alcohol rehab center for Aboriginal people. While the story is fictionalized and its dialogue improvised (in English and the Yolngu language of the setting), its parallels to Gulpilil’s troubled recent past make it alive with authenticity. And yet the film’s observations about the struggle for spiritual resilience in the face of white colonization and irreconcilable societal imbalance enrich it with emotional universality. It’s the most affecting depiction of contemporary Aboriginal experience since Warwick Thornton’s Samson & Delilah.
Charlie (Gulpilil) lives in an alcohol-free Arnhem Land community where any remaining traces of his people’s traditional way of life are fast disappearing. Local cop Luke (Luke Ford) is friendly enough, but strictly by-the-book in terms of hunting and weapons licenses. When Charlie goes out game shooting with his friend Pete (Peter Djigirr), their guns are confiscated along with Pete’s unregistered car. Even Charlie’s hand-made spear is deemed a dangerous weapon and taken from him. While he helps the cops track white drug dealers selling ganja to the locals, Charlie gets little in return.
Watching with sadness as an ailing fellow community member is flown off to hospital to die far from his people and his land, Charlie decides to “go bush.” He returns to the old ways, hunting and gathering food, doing bark paintings and sleeping under a makeshift shelter. Charlie’s sense of freedom is written all over his face, in his ambling gait, and in the chuckling banter he engages in with himself. With his wiry body and easy, unselfconscious manner, Gulpilil makes these scenes among the unhurried film’s chief pleasures.
But there are also poignant notes as Charlie contemplates a crumpled black and white photo of himself as a boy performing Aboriginal ceremonial dance at the opening of the Sydney Opera House, an event attended by the Queen. This serves as effective dramatic shorthand for Gulpilil’s own significant cultural achievements, and it figures in a tremendously moving sequence toward the end of the film.
When the rain comes, Charlie’s poor health takes its toll, and after being found by Pete he’s removed to a Darwin hospital. From there, however, things take a worse turn as he discharges himself and falls in with a group of “long grassers,” urban homeless Aborigines who drink and smoke weed all day, and are routinely rounded up by cops.
While Ian Jones‘ widescreen cinematography is hypnotic in the fluid gaze it casts over the untamed bushland, it’s also magnificent in extended closeups on Gulpilil’s face, his eyes telling a multitude of stories. But the most lingering image shows him sitting in stoic silence while his wild gray mane and beard are shorn off by a prison barber, transforming Charlie into another person.
It’s a testament to what de Heer and Gulpilil have achieved here — with simplicity and infinite nuance — that through all the highs and devastating lows we witness in this brief chapter of Charlie’s life, the character’s identity remains etched into every aspect of the performance. His sense of himself and where he comes from is the one thing he never loses, which is what gives this melancholy story its haunting beauty.
Production companies: Vertigo Productions, Bula’bula Arts Aboriginal Corporation
Cast: David Gulpilil, Peter Djigirr, Luke Ford, Jennifer Budukpuduk Gaykamangu, Peter Minygululu
Director: Rolf de Heer
Screenwriters: Rolf de Heer, David Gulpilil
Producers: Nils Erik Nielsen, Peter Djigirr, Rolf de Heer
Executive producers: Domenico Procacci, Bryce Menzies, Sue Murray, Troy Lum, Peter McMahon
Director of photography: Ian Jones
Production & costume designer: Beverley Freeman
Editor: Tania Nehme
Music: Graham Tardiff
Sales: Visit Films
No rating, 107 minutes
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