Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Rolf De Heer
Stars: David Gulpilil, Luke Ford, Peter Djigirr, Gary Sweet, Jennifer Budukpuduk Gaykamangu, Gary Waddell.
Charlie’s Country is Rolf De Heer’s 14th feature film, and the third film in his unofficial trilogy exploring aboriginal issues – Ten Canoes dealt with the past and ancient traditional aboriginal ways and their dreamtime; The Tracker dealt with the cruel treatment of aboriginals in the 19th century by the white settlers; and this film is a confronting look at contemporary problems facing Australia’s indigenous population.
David Gulpilil, who has worked with De Heer on several of his films, plays Charlie, an elderly aboriginal who lives on a remote aboriginal settlement in the Northern Territory. Once a celebrated dancer who even performed for the Queen at the opening ceremony for the Sydney Opera House, he is now bitter and disappointed at what has happened to the spirit of his people. Charlie and the aboriginal people have to live with some fairly restrictive laws that he doesn’t fully comprehend. He thinks that his people have lost their traditional ways and their dignity and beliefs, and seem content to live off the government purse. He decides to go walkabout, hoping to reconnect with the land and the old traditional ways, which has devastating consequences.
He falls sick and is taken to hospital in Darwin, and he quickly finds himself alienated in a strange and seemingly hostile environment. He falls in with a group of homeless aboriginals, known as “long grassers”, which eventually leads to him being arrested and thrown in jail.
The film deals with themes of isolation, displacement, identity, prejudice, the patronising attitudes of whites and bureaucracy to the needs and history of the indigenous population. De Heer wrote the film in conjunction with Gulpilil, as a project to try and keep his friend out of jail. Gulpilil has drawn upon his own experiences, his battles with alcoholism and his imprisonment to shape the screenplay.
Gulpilil shot the film while out on parole, and his personal experiences have shaped his poignant performance. Gulpilil, who has starred in films like Walkabout, The Last Wave and de Heer’s The Tracker, is front and centre for much of the film and his performance won the Best Actor award at the Une Certain Regard sidebar in Cannes. He delivers a powerful performance as the troubled, deeply flawed Charlie whose health and mental state have deteriorated. His grizzled, weathered face bears the hard years of experience, which adds to the authenticity of his soulful performance.
Luke Ford (from Animal Kingdom, etc) registers strongly also as a well meaning but officious local cop who tries to show his even handedness in dealing with the locals, but there is a streak of racism just below the surface. Peter Djigirr, who also co-produced the film, brings a mischievous quality to his performance as Black Pete, Charlie’s best mate. Gary Sweet, another De Heer regular, has a small role as a shopkeeper while Gary Waddell, from De Heer’s The King Is Dead, also contributes a small role.
As with Ivan Sen’s Toomelah, and Warwick Thornton’s Samson And Delilah, Charlie’s Country is a raw and insightful film that doesn’t offer a romanticised or sanitised picture of life for indigenous communities. De Heer is an intelligent and passionate filmmaker, and his films are often driven by a powerful sense of social injustice. It is obvious that this material is also close to his heart, as Charlie’s Country is obviously something of a labour of love for both the veteran director and his star.
The film has been beautifully shot by De Heer’s regular cinematographer Ian Jones, who brings the remote outback of Arnhem Land to life. He often works in close-up, with the shots of Gulpilil’s weary and expressive face conveying so much more about his thoughts and inner pain than mere words ever could. Graham Tardif’s minimalist piano-driven score adds a melancholy note to the drama.