Directed by Rolf de Heer
In Charlie’s Country, David Gulpilil gives one the of the great Australian performances as the cheeky and irreverent title character. The film is a foray through the causal slipstream of Gulpilil’s later life, from his alcoholism and hospitalisation to his recent jail time. The film’s director, Rolf de Heer, making his 19th movie, co-authored the story with Gulpilil as a process of rehabilitation. Gulpilil was recovering after a stint in prison for drunkenly assaulting his wife—”he was in a bad way”, says de Heer—and wanted to get back on the straight and narrow. Feeling the obligations of his traditional community and the pressures of local stardom, Gulpilil turned to de Heer, a friend first and foremost, to reconnect with his great passion: performance. It’s so great then, knowing these facts, to see Gulpilil shine on the screen, giving a cheeky, irreverent and gritty performance, no doubt inspired by deep truths.
The film’s director, Rolf de Heer, is one of Australia’s most prolific. Here he directs a very specific story with the political invective of a blackfella’s perspective. It’s first half, set in the community where we initially find Charlie, at the height of the intervention, is raucous and rebellious Third Cinema, made in a first world country by a Dutchman. This bizarre circumstance, no doubt lending the film a fresh and balanced perspective, is supported by stunning widescreen camerawork lit by gleaming natural sources. Charlie swaggers through the town past the police station every day, hurtling cries of revolt in his natural tongue so that none of the whitefellas can understand him. After travelling with a pot dealer into the bush, he’s later approached by the same policeman, who asks him to, using his Aboriginal skill set, track their location. Gulpilil plays up the tokenistic Magical Negro stereotype (y’know, like how in Australia the young Indigenous boy stops a herd of cattle with his magical powers), pinpointing the exact location of the dealers by smelling the leaves on the ground, to the great astonishment of the policemen. “I don’t know how you do it, Charlie”, he says. It’s the white guys who are stupid in Charlie’s Country, but they also write the rulebook.
There’s a through-line of injustice running through the spine of this film. It’s got the postcolonial political willpower last seen in John Pilger’s Utopia, this time integrated into a fictional scenario to great effect. Charlie wants to feel like he has a home, and he can’t find one. Anywhere. His community, where he’s been placed and given shelter by the government, isn’t quite the paradise he grew up in. The Darwin Hospital, where his friend is being airlifted to, is far from the traditional country of his ancestors, where he one day hopes to return to the land. When Charlie’s gun is confiscated he’s told to apply for a license. “I am a hunter”, he cries, “not a Recreational Shooter”. When he crafts a spear for fishing, that’s confiscated too. The rigid and regulatory practice of the whitefella simply doesn’t allow for the old way. This film doesn’t shy away from shredding the optimistic romance of peaceful co-existence seen in too many politically correct films. Charlie’s determination, its guts, get it over the line.
Charlie’s Country‘s best scene is when Charlie attempts to relocate his lost paradise. Abandoning a stolen police car in favour of travel by foot, he ventures deep into the Arnhem Land to find his old home. Rarely has Australia looked so gorgeous and sumptuous, trees spearing out of the densely covered floor, light peeping through the clutter of trees and bushes, ripe with natural tucker. Charlie jubilantly celebrates, screaming, “I’ve got my own private supermarket” after months of hunger. The shot ends too soon, and the film takes a sad downturn as a rainstorm leaves Charlie cold, wet and sick.
Charlie’s Country falters slightly through its final act as , after escaping from hospital in Darwin, Charlie falls back into his old ways. Withdrawing money from an ATM he’s approached by a woman who’s banned from buying booze, and they enter a bottle shop together. Some months later Charlie’s still there, a Long Grasser, drinking in the bushes, addiction taking its toll. It’s so frustrating, as is the jail term shown in the film, which is edited as a repetitive montage so as to highlight the passing of time. Dealt with more swiftly and with greater purpose, these scenes would’ve made great contributions to the theme of displacement, especially considering their autobiographical nature, but they prolong the pain. The music and sound effects are too on-the-nose at times, and unnecessary aural cues and a strange and clumsy dream sequence don’t help. Gulpilil lifts the film above its material though, and makes even these moments, good moments in an otherwise great film, worthwhile. It’s a cliche, but this really is his film.
The title seemingly refers to the land that Charlie grew up in. Like Gulpilil, Charlie’s upbringing was far removed from the urban colonial towns and cities. After success in Walkabout, The Storm Boy and Crocodile Dundee, Gulpilil grew distant from that place. His life ever since, marred by alcohol and cigarettes, has been tumultuous. But where does he fit in? This film, brought to life by Gulpilil’s masterful performance, would tell us that neither the cities or towns of even the traditional lands feel like home to Indigenous Australians anymore. This is all Charlie’s country, but the whitefellas make the rules.
Charlie’s Country is in cinemas now.