(M) David Gulpilil, Peter Djigirr, Luke Ford
Charlie’s Country is the third collaboration between iconic Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil and director Rolf de Heer, after The Tracker and Ten Canoes. Together the three films form an informal trilogy, exploring the Indigenous experience at different points in Australia’s history. Charlie’s Country is the first of these films to be set in the present day and the most personal of the collaborations.
Charlie lives in a government controlled rural community in Arnhem Land. The first image we see in the film is a Liquor Act sign, declaring this to be an alcohol restricted community. While Charlie enjoys largely congenial relationships with the local white police, there is an undeniable tension simmering beneath the surface. He grows increasingly frustrated with the trying to live under the Intervention’s “white fella” rules. The white doctor tells Charlie that for the sake of his health he has to stop eating the white junk food, the only food available in town. But when Charlie goes hunting to catch his own food, “real food,” the white police confiscate his gun and fine him for recreational shooting. When he carves himself a spear, that too is confiscated as a dangerous weapon. In frustration, Charlie leaves the town to return to his country and live the old way, only to find that world no longer exists.
David Gulpilil’s performance as Charlie is the heart and soul of this film. It has been rightly earning critical praise around the world, including winning Best Actor at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. The actor delivers a captivating performance as a disenfranchised man, caught between two worlds, unable to exist in either. Gulpilil was a co-writer on the film and the character obviously draws heavily on his own life experience. The film was first formulated while Gulpilil was serving time in prison and subsequently in a drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre.
Charlie’s Country explores the tension that occurs when one culture is imposed over another. Where Warwick Thornton’s Samson and Delilah sought to shine a light without pointing a finger, Charlie’s Country is much more didactic. This film comes from a place of Indigenous frustration. In the colonialist world the film depicts, white influence is seen in the form of drugs, alcohol, guns, junk food and laws. While the first half of the film, set in Arnhem Land, is really engrossing, the second half, set in Darwin, is weaker and significantly less subtle in its exploration of these issues. A Darwin doctor asks if he can call Charlie by his first name because “I have difficulty pronouncing foreign names.” It’s a good line, but about as subtle as a sledgehammer.
A slow paced film – it feels longer than it is – Charlie’s Country is a pointed indictment of contemporary Australian Indigenous relations, highlighting the unworkable imbalance that exists between white law and Indigenous culture in the Northern Territory.