Blackfella Charlie (David Gulpilil) is getting older, and he's out of sorts. The intervention is making life more difficult on his remote community, what with the proper policing of whitefella laws that don't generally make much sense, and Charlie's kin and ken seeming more interested in going along with things than doing anything about it. So Charlie takes off, to live the old way, but in so doing sets off a chain of events in his life that has him return to his community chastened, and somewhat the wiser.
Review by Louise Keller:
The haunting face of David Gulpilil is the overwhelming image that remains after watching Rolf de Heer's film about a man conflicted by living on the edge of two worlds. In many ways, it's an extraordinary film, given that de Heer conceived it as a project to offer Gulpilil a sense of purpose during a time when the Aboriginal actor had lost his way. They are both credited with writing the script; the work is collaboration between the two men. It may not be autobiographical, but the film is first and foremost a portrait of Gulpilil's soul: his love hate relationship with Australian society and the pull of his own culture and way of life. It also provides a fascinating insight into the indigenous culture and offers an ode to this expansive land of ours Down Under, with its unique landscape and evocative natural sounds.
Gulpilil makes a striking figure with his distinctive black features, collar-length unruly grey curls and stark white beard. He is as skinny as a whippet, wearing faded blue jeans and a sleeveless check shirt. He sits on the coloured earth symbolically throwing cigarettes one by one into the fire he has just lit. His face is a painting in motion.
At the beginning of the film, Charlie (Gulpilil) and Luke (Luke Ford) the local cop call each other 'Bastard' as they pass each other in the course of their daily rituals. It is preceded by an emphatic expletive and racist colour description that could almost be described as a sign of affection. But this changes dramatically as the narrative evolves and Charlie's ties to his land are threatened.
The crux of the film's journey is one in which Charlie fights against the establishment that threatens his instinctive life. A recreational shooter is how Charlie and his friend Black Pete (Peter Djigirr) are described when their hunting trip turns sour; instead of enjoying a good feed of the buffalo they shoot, they are faced with jail and a fine because they don't have a permit. It's a far cry from when Luke says 'You black fellas are smart when you wanna be,' as Charlie is called upon to exercise his skills as a tracker.
We are given a wonderful sense of the bush in the remote Northern Territory indigenous community of Ramingining with its crystal clear, natural sounds of birds, insects and rustling undergrowth. Graham Tardif's score compliments these sounds with its simple piano themes that seem to raise questions as well as offer a few musical answers. The sequence when Charlie goes bush, spears a barramundi, cooks it on the fire and retorts 'This is my country' is one that positively sings; here we can see that Gulpilil is harmonious with his environment. De Heer captures the nuances beautifully, as the conflicts with the establishment erupt, impacting on Charlie's personal freedom and state of mind.
From the outset it is clear that Charlie's Country is a film made with passion and conviction. Bouquets to de Heer for delivering such a raw and insightful film that manages to keep us engaged from start to finish. And of course to Gulpilil, whose soulful screen presence overrides everything else.
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CHARLIE'S COUNTRY (M)
CAST: David Gulpilil, Peter Djigirr, Luke Ford, Bobby Bunungurr, Frances Djulibing
PRODUCER: Rolf de Heer, Peter Djigirr, Nils Erik Nielsen
DIRECTOR: Rolf de Heer
SCRIPT: David Gulpilil, Rolf de Heer
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Ian Jones
EDITOR: Tania Nehme
MUSIC: Graham Tardif
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Beverly Freeman
RUNNING TIME: 108 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Entertainment one
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: July 17, 2014 (Previews July 4-6; July 11-13)