Charlie’s Country

July 19, 2014
Charlie (David Gulpilil) in a scene from Rolf de Heer's 'Charlie's Country' (2014)
Charlie (David Gulpilil) in a scene from Rolf de Heer's 'Charlie's Country' (2014)

In the international arena Charlie’s Country is enjoying success as an arthouse movie, but no film could be more brutally realistic in its depiction of contemporary Aboriginal life. Perhaps any story without car chases and explosions is now automatically consigned to the realm of art, but it’s obvious that Charlie’s Country could never be mistaken for an action flick. One waits for some catalyst to ignite the plot, but everything proceeds at the same stately pace from start to finish. This sense of time may be unusual in cinematic terms but will be perfectly familiar to indigenous audiences.

For lead actor, David Gulpilil, who features in almost every scene, the story is broadly autobiographical, almost confessional. Having made his debut in Nic Roeg’s Walkabout (1971), while still in his teens, over the past four decades Gulpilil has become the screen face of Aboriginal Australia. Although he is one of the best known Australian actors it would be hard to call his life a success. Along with stardom there have been bouts of heavy drinking, a domestic violence charge and a gaol sentence. Director, Rolf de Heer, who worked with Gulpilil on The Tracker (2002) and Ten Canoes (2006), began to feel that making Charlie’s Country was crucial to getting his friend back on track. The script, created while Gulpilil was in rehab, was always intended to be faithful to his personal experiences.

The film tells the story of Charlie, an Aboriginal man in his 60s, living on a dry settlement near Maningrida in central Arnhem Land. As soon as Charlie gets his welfare payment it’s quickly dispersed among friends and relatives. This happens in every Aboriginal community every day, but it still feels mildly shocking to see how little Charlie and his people care about money.

It’s a uncomplicated existence but hardly satisfying. Charlie has a jokey relationship with the local white policemen, but they can’t help him when he asks for a house of his own. He feels bored with the poor quality food sold at the local shop, which he doesn’t want to eat. Alcohol is banned but the men get drunk outside the limits of the community. When he and his friend, Peter (Peter Djigirr), go hunting, they are stopped and made to hand over their firearms. Even a spear that Charlie has carved by hand is confiscated as an offensive weapon.

By slow stages a picture is painted of a community, under the aegis of ‘the intervention’, in which adults are treated like children. In disgust, Charlie goes to live in the bush, in the traditional manner, but his health has been ruined by cigarettes and poor diet. His excursion doesn’t survive the first big downpour of rain that leaves him sick and gasping for breath.

Taken to Darwin for medical treatment, Charlie recovers, but soon finds himself hooked up with a group of poor Aborigines who camp in a park, getting drunk and smoking dope. When his friends come to get him they are upset to find he is associating with a woman from the wrong skin group. Eventually the police raid the camp and Charlie is arrested. For assaulting the cops he is put on trial and receives a goal sentence.

De Heer doesn’t dramatise prison life. We watch Charlie having his long hair and beard shaved off, rendering him almost unrecognisable. Like Samson, this shearing seems to drain all the life out of him. Day after day he drops off a load of laundry with the same mechanical gestures. In the mess hall, unappetising food is dished out with robotic efficiency. The visual tedium of prison is contrasted with the pristine beauty of the bush, where we have spent the first part of the film.

Upon release, Charlie finds himself back in Manigrida, facing the same old routine, but there is a prospect of redemption in teaching the young boys how to dance. It’s an upbeat ending for a story that up until this point has charted a long, slow decline, but it doesn’t leave us feeling any more positive about the fate of indigenous communities.

The most powerful aspect of this low-keyed film is the way De Heer presents the facts of Charlie’s life with no attempt at a message or a moral. Charlie is neither hero nor anti-hero. Motivated by a vague sense of dissatisfaction he drifts from one misadventure to another. Like so many of his countrymen, Charlie is clinging to his culture by a thread. The old lifestyles don’t make sense any more to people living in small, artificial communities, but there is even less engagement with the values of non-indigenous society.

The police and the judges encounters with Charlie are generally well-meaning but show no understanding of importance of culture and country to indigenous people. One magistrate asks if he can call the defendant “Charlie” because he has difficulty with foreign names.

We recognise this lack of comprehension as the status quo in Australia. It has been mirrored at the highest levels, as politicians and bureacrats have struggled to find ways of dealing with the perennial problems of Aboriginal society. In this melancholy story we can see there are no magic cures for the malaise apart from the determination of individuals to take control of their own lives. If Charlie, and Gulpilil, can come through, there’s hope for everyone.

Charlie’s Country
Directed by Rolf de Heer
Written by Rolf de Heer & David Gulpilil
Starring David Gulpilil, Peter Djigirr, Luke Ford
Australia, rated M, 108 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 19 July, 2014.