CHARLIE'S COUNTRY. Starring: David Gulpilil, Peter Djigirr, and Luke Ford. Directed by Rolf De Heer. Rated M (Mature themes and coarse language). 108 min.
This is a beautifully crafted Australian film that competed in the "Un Certain Regard" section of the 2014 Cannes Film Festival. It tells the story of Charlie (David Gulpilil), a vulnerable Indigenous man living in a remote part of the Northern Territory. The film was made in Gulpilil's home country of Ramingining in Arnhem Land and the story is inspired by his personal experiences. The laws of the White Man have been introduced into his community and he is unhappy with them. Rejecting their strictures, he wants to return to the old ways of existence, and live as his ancestors chose to live.
Gulpilil won the Best Actor award in the Regard section, and his award is richly deserved. He is one of those rare actors who don't need words to let you know immediately what he is thinking and feeling. He has starred previously in Rolf De Heer's "The Tracker" (2002), and "Ten Canoes" (2006). The first of these two movies examined the relations between black and white Australians in the early 20th. century, and "Ten Canoes" explored Indigenous culture before white settlement. In this film, the consequences of a clash between the two cultures completes a trilogy, and is the most personal film of the three.
Gulpilil acts out charismatically the story of a person caught tragically between two cultures - one he belongs to, and one that is intruding onto his traditions and beliefs. He struggles with a culture he perceives as rejecting his way of life, and he is enraged by the white regulations that isolate him from his traditions. The restrictions have been introduced for enforcement by the town's white policeman, Luke (Luke Ford), and Charlie frequently runs afoul of the law with his Indigenous friend, Pete (Peter Djigirr).
Luke confiscates a spear that is precious to Charlie; he needs it to hunt for food. The incident drives him into the bush to reconnect with his old way of life. He escapes to find freedom and recover his dignity, but his journey denies him both. Stressed by the experience, he is humiliated and loses face. He gets sick and his beard and hair are shorn, following arrest and imprisonment for providing alcohol to a banned (Indigenous) person.
Gulpilil captures the social tension and unhappiness of his people superbly. He has worked with De Heer many times before and the interaction between actor and Director is seamless; both Gulpilil and De Heer wrote the screenplay for this film together. Under the expert direction of De Heer and the magnificent acting of Gulpilil, the film captures the warmth and humanity of Indigenous peoples, while recognising at the same time their own issues and the problems that have come from white man's entry into their culture. The tension is always there between the new ways, and the old. "My Land is my home", Charlie says, but my "mother country is too far".
The film is a modern story of the conflicts associated with the combination of two cultures. There is a poetic quality to the movie as a whole as it explores sensitively Charlie's cultural disengagement. The film is tragic and sorrowful, but also has moments of joy and humour. It shows resilience against white intrusion, and represents a moving and authentic account of the conflicts experienced by Indigenous Australians in remote communities.
The cinematography is wonderful. The grandeur and beauty of the outback are captured vividly, but we see the outback as nature intended it to be seen, not as others would wish us to view it. The film is scripted sparsely and sharply, and an excellent musical score plays quietly and dramatically in the background.
The film communicates sensitive awareness of death and sacred land, but it will engender debate about the tensions that exist for Indigenous communities. It doesn't preach about cultural assimilation, but presents the issues involved in a natural way. In the film, white people are not all bad, and Indigenous people are not all good. The dominant message of the movie is that both white and black people are human beings, but tension lies ahead in their coming to understand each other.
This is a quality Australian movie, acted and directed expertly. In the film, important insights about cultural conflicts emerge through the telling of a strong and simple story that is highly personal and deeply emotionally felt.
Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Literature.
Entertainment One Films Australia
Released July 17th., 2014