Late in the film Charlie is throwing cigarettes into a bonfire. He’s in the middle of nowhere – all we can see is bush with no clear indicators any other way – and he’s pulling them out of his thick mane as though he’s also hidden a hundred other objects in there. If he were a magician he’d be pulling coins out. He does it numerous other times throughout the film as a way of preventing others from smoking them but this is the only time where he pauses for a brief moment and smirks, as if to say, “well, whaddya know...” Given what he has learned over the course of the film it’s a massive understatement.
David Gulpilil plays Charlie, a “blackfella” that has remained in the bush for his entire life. He’s incredibly skinny – his rib bones protrude as if for a fashion mag shoot – and had led his own life without interference. His Aboriginal name is unclear: it is pronounced at one stage via his tribal tongue to a white doctor but without knowledge it’s impossible to spell.
Charlie’s Country is the third collaboration between De Heer and Gulpilil (The Tracker, Ten Canoes). Born out of a desire to not see his friend go the way of Albert Namatjira, an Aboriginal artist who died of alcoholism, De Heer met with Gulpilil when he was incarcerated for five months on charges of attacking his wife under inebriation.
Written by both, Charlie’s Country is one of the most convoluted experiences of the year. The story is very straightforward: Charlie, bored of being constantly sought for help by the local police without reward, steals one of their cars and heads on a trip to return to his Mother Country with a friend. They don’t get very far – the car runs out of fuel almost immediately and he then walks the rest of the way. He never reaches his destination and almost dies in the process. That’s the film in a nutshell. Where the through line isn’t so clear is the relationship he has with a policeman, Luke (Luke Ford). They’re obviously comfortable with each other, trading off “white bastard” with “black bastard,” embellishing the barbs with a familiar laugh. One gets the impression that Luke is one of the more friendlier cops in the area: he is disheartened when he has to destroy a carefully constructed spear that Charlie has obviously put a lot of effort into in order to go hunting. He knows Charlie won’t hurt anyone with it but law is law. “You know what happened in the other camp.” It’s Luke’s way of explaining his unfortunate position as rule enforcer, a status where chances can’t be given.
This is after a shotgun has been confiscated, along with the bull that was hunted down with it. They’re not hunters in the 21st century sense, glorified trophy gatherers: these are blackfellas. Killing an animal is strictly for food. But in a world where whitefella law reigns supreme it makes it all incredibly difficult to justify without permits and the rest.
Charlie’s endeavour to recapture his love of the land is a messy one. Based on Gulpilil’s own personal stories – it’s unclear as to how much is fiction, not that that’s important – it’s a timely reminder as to what Aboriginals have to face in a world stolen from them.
Indeed, the very opening line is a spit in the face of white man. Charlie shouts at the local police station in his native tongue then cheekily claims he was saying something wholly innocent when questioned. It’s shocking to witness at first, as though Charlie were simply a bitter old man questioning his life, but as the story develops one can’t blame him for the ever-present antagonism.
The film is mostly shot with handheld cameras on what appears to be a shoestring budget – a lot of performances seem like bad single takes. Though it’s distracting at time it doesn’t take away from the powerful story behind it all. Gulpilil is in fine form here as the cheeky Charlie. De Heer’s direction keeps us heavily involved in his story as the man who once danced for the Queen and is now struggling to find food and shelter.
There’s no doubt that these three collaborations will go on to become legendary Australian films in thirty, forty years. Until then it’s essential viewing. Maybe by the end one will share the same smirk as him, once it’s all said and done: “Well, whaddya know, this is what life really is like for them.” We know, or at least claim to know, what Aboriginal life is like but it’s cinema like this that reminds us that there’s a long way to go before it’s righted again.
Nicholas Brodie - follow Nick on Twitter here: @fodusempire