David Gulpilil has been hailed for Charlie’s Country, the film Rolf de Heer wrote for him. Photo: Getty Images
David Gulpilil was in poor shape when Rolf de Heer started working with him on Charlie’s Country, the third Australian film to screen at the Cannes Film Festival this week and, as it happens, the third film the two of them have made together. At the time, Gulpilil – the charismatic actor whose dignified performance, at 16, in Nic Roeg’s film Walkabout changed the way Aboriginal people were seen on screen – was in jail.
”I knew he had been drinking too much – far too much,” says de Heer. ”And then when I heard he was in jail I thought, ‘I have to go and see him.”’ De Heer lives in Tasmania; Gulpilil was in Darwin. There were a lot of delays with his flights. ”It took me 36 hours to get there, so I had time to contemplate – and I thought, ‘What am I doing going up to see him? It’s just a gesture! A gesture of friendship, but what can I do? The only thing I can really do is make films.”’
Rolf de Heer had made very different films, including Dance Me to My Song which screened in Cannes 16 years ago, before he worked with David Gulpilil for the first time on The Tracker (2002). Ten Canoes (2006), which also screened to great acclaim in Cannes, was made in Gulpilil’s community in remote Ramingining, 560 kilometres east of Darwin. On the third day of De Heer’s three-day visit Gulpilil said all he wanted to do was make another film, specifically with Rolf de Heer. ”I felt I had no choice – because what’s going to happen to him when he comes out of jail?” he says. He started work immediately.
Director Rolf de Heer. Photo: Getty Images
Charlie’s Country focuses on an ageing indigenous man who lives in a humpy, collects the dole, goes hunting with his mate and occasionally has a drink on the border of the community’s dry zone, much to the Cannes audience’s hooting amusement.
Charlie is cheerful and amiable, but money doesn’t go far when it’s shared with everyone, and Charlie finds himself going hungry. His decline into alcoholism, homelessness and jail has a grim inevitability to it. By that stage the Cannes audience had become very quiet indeed.
”It’s in no way autobiographical,” De Heer cautions. ”David has not lived in Ramingining during the ‘intervention’, which is where the first third of the film takes place; David never went bush, which is the second third of the film, but there are elements in all of that which come from him.
”What I felt was that if we used things he recognised and could draw on easily, then a great performance from him was more likely. And because we were pegging it on Charlie’s character, his performance is everything.”
Charlie’s Country is a surprisingly natural fit for Cannes. From the Riviera, Australia is as exotic as anywhere on earth.
The film’s team is staying in a villa and were obliged to call a plumber who literally cried with excitement when he met Peter Djiggir, who worked on Ten Canoes and is an actor and co-producer on Charlie’s Country.
”He said he’d met people from all over the world who come to Cannes, but never an Australian Aboriginal,” says Cathy Gallagher, the film’s publicist. ”He cried with the honour of meeting someone who comes from a place so unique.”
Given that sense of strangeness, it is an ostensibly difficult thing for a white man to take on telling a blackfella’s story. Rolf de Heer has never felt awkward, however, because he didn’t set out initially to do that: The Tracker was a white man’s story that gradually became more about its black character in the telling. ”And Ten Canoes was relatively straightforward. David had been nagging me for years to make a film with his people on his land, so it was by invitation, in a way. And Charlie’s Country is made for and with David. So me and that community, we’re completely fine.”
Much of what we see in Charlie’s Country is dire. What is to be done? It’s the obvious question to ask. What can I do? ”Look, each of us is caught in our own situation but, if we become more sensitive to other people’s situations, then their situation improves,” says De Heer. And the film did help David Gulpilil, whose performance is riveting, in exactly the way he had hoped.
”When he was taken into custody, he weighed 39 kilos. He was gone for all money and I think that was almost deliberate,” he says. ”But he hasn’t had a drink since he came out of jail and is now making moves to go back to his traditional lands. Even if he’s not there yet, he has turned some sort of corner.”
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