David Gulpilil is the undisputed King of Aboriginal actors. Since his debut in Nicholas Roeg’s unforgettable Walkabout, followed a couple of years later by his stunning performance in Peter Weir’s The Last Wave, Gulpilil has been the cinematic face of Aborigines for the last 45 years or so. Yet until he collaborated with Rolf de Heer in 2007’s award winning Ten Canoes, he was often stuck playing supporting roles to white leads. Only a sucker would disparage Jenny Agutter or Richard Chamberlain, but it’s Gulpilil that provides the heart of their respective films, his characters representing mysterious, unknowable spirituality.
In Charlie’s Country, his second collaboration with de Heer, this mystery begins to peel away. Traditionally films about Aboriginal beliefs involve a white Australian becoming inadvertently initiated into a world they can’t comprehend, often with tragic results. Here, we see Australia from a firmly Aboriginal perspective; a litany of discrimination, dehumanization and cultural obliteration. This inverts the process, with the film showing us a proud Aboriginal man fighting off the cultural and social infection of white European society.
We first meet Charlie in a reservation somewhere near Darwin. He’s elderly, scraggly haired and has a wise, extraordinarily cinematic face. He’s generous and appears well regarded in his community, yet also cuts a solitary figure. His house is an open-fronted hut, he cooks his food over an open fire and walks an uneasy tightrope between assisting petty criminals and helping the police to catch them. Dark rumblings on the horizon come with the police confiscating first his hunting weapons and a doctor’s prognosis of chronic lung disease.
There’s a worrying monotony to this first act that approaches boredom. Charlie’s Country isn’t exactly overflowing with dynamic narrative, and as charismatic as Gulpilil is, watching him sit around not doing much sends the mind wandering. Yet gradually things build into a rhythm and you realize that de Heer and Gulpilul wield boredom like barbers wield razor blades.
The dust, junk and general dullness of the reservation eventually gives way to breathtaking natural photography when Charlie retreats into the freedom of the bush. In long dialogue free scenes our attention is held by watching him simply surviving, the film transforming into quasi-documentary rather than drama. There’s a primeval atmosphere to these sequences, painting Charlie as the resurrection of Stone Age man. The pinnacle is a short scene where it’s quietly revealed that Charlie was present at the opening of the Sydney Opera House and danced for the Queen – interweaving his personal history with these cultural colossi of the Australian psyche.
We quickly realize that Charlie’s life is a microcosm of the recent history of the Aboriginal people, he’s culturally valued while his rights are trampled. Dancing for Queen Elizabeth II, once seen by Charlie as a great recognition of his culture, becomes a sop to politeness, the ceremony fetishizing his spirituality while whacking a gigantic white temple to European high culture on his land.
Most alarming is the casual manner in which we see white Australians infantilize Charlie. We learn about how Aboriginals are often banned from drinking alcohol, having to present ID even to purchase it – the scenes that eerily echoing apartheid South Africa. A white doctor apologetically asks how to pronounce Charlie’s surname – he’s not good with “foreign” names. Gulpilil and de Heer present modern Aboriginal life as death by a thousand cuts; tiny humiliations piling up until you suffer the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
Anti-colonialist cinema often has a bleak outlook for its indigenous subjects. The arrival of white Europeans is (usually correctly) portrayed as the beginning of the end, sparking an inexorable process that will eventually completely eradicate these peoples and their cultures. Charlie’s Country avoids this. The primary political message is in the title; this land belongs to Charlie and to the Aborigines and these “fuckin’ whitefellas” are just temporary interlopers, tourists on his patch.
This is underlined by the repeated visual linking of Charlie with the landscape, his fat-free musculature blending into the ground and echoing the painted rocks around him. He fits so well into this environment he may as well have grown from the very soil itself. This is contrasted with the sweaty, red-faced, uniformed whites who may as well be wearing space suits as they emerge from within glistening, clean vehicles.
De Heers gets a lot of mileage out of close ups of Gulpilil’s cool, patient, faintly accusatory gaze. Though we learn all about his external life, his internal life remains an enigma. But while we might not know what he’s thinking about, we still sense his fierce indignation, intelligence and frustration at being prevented from living a traditional Aboriginal lifestyle and having a chance of living one equal to the white Australians that treat him like a child. He’s trapped between two poles, and this, combined with his righteous belief that this is his damn country, means his stare burns through the screen at us.
Key to understanding this indignation is that the Aboriginal peoples have occupied Australia for approximately 50,000 years, as opposed to these newcomer Europeans who showed up a mere 200 years ago. As we see Charlie surveying his landscape, it’s easy to imagine his ancestors behaving in much the same way, just as it’s easy to imagine his descendants 20,000 years down the line doing the same. The Sydney Opera House will have long returned to dust, the cities ending up as mysterious ruins, the “whitefellas” relegated to a tale for naughty children, but the Aborigines and their landscape will remain. This delicate optimism buoys up the film; to watch is to understand that this is Charlie’s country.
Charlie’s Country is not the wildest cinematic rollercoaster you’ll ever climb aboard, but it’s an intelligent, beautiful and thoughtful film that deserves an audience’s full attention. At times it’s monotonous, arguably even boring, but this is all in service of allowing audiences a mercifully brief taste of suffering under the yolk of alien rule.
Charlie's Country is a more than worthy piece of cinema, firmly anchored by David Gulpilil's magnetic lead performance.