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Issue #1649      July 30, 2014

Movie Review

Charlie’s Country

The history of contemporary iconic Australian Aboriginal actors will always have in it a reference to one man from his first film, Walkabout, in 1971 at 16 years of age. David Gulpilil has also appeared in Mad Dog Morgan, Rabbit-Proof Fence, Crocodile Dundee, The Tracker, Ten Canoes, Australia and now Charlie’s Country.

David Gulpilil as Charlie.

While Walkabout only hinted at the dispossession of Aboriginal people and the effects of colonialism, director Rolf de De Heer’s third collaboration with David Gulpilil, portrays the full gamut of Aboriginal issues is portrayed in Charlie’s Country.

The film is set in the Northern Territory Aboriginal community of Ramingining, not far from the traditional Yolgnu lands (Arnhem Land)of Charlie (Gulpilil).

It is a movie made to remind white Australia that after years of this report and that commission of enquiry, “Closing the Gap” and Kevin Rudd’s apology, there has been precious little movement on anything in regards to addressing Aboriginal disadvantage – especially Aboriginal health issues which are writ large throughout the film.

The film starts with a lingering shot of a Liquor Control Act sign at the entrance to Ramangining Aboriginal Community, indicating that it is prohibited to bring alcohol onto the community.

From there the film goes into the community and the house of sorts in which Charlie lives – a well constructed elevated yet open shelter. There is a real housing shortage in the community of 800 Aboriginal people live, and Charlie makes the point about a need for more adequate housing in his country.

There is a police station in the community amidst the many people from different tribal groups who have been thrown together. There are few employment opportunities, lots of time to kill, boredom, all making a meaningful existence a recurring challenge.

Charlie and a friend kill a buffalo on a hunting trip for tucker, but they are stopped by the police who take their guns and car with the buffalo for breaches of various white man laws. Charlie has made a good spear. The police also confiscate that as it is viewed as carrying a weapon through a residential area.

This constant and pointless interference forces Charlie to go bush for a few days but the experience is mostly harsh on a 60-year-old Aboriginal man whose body, although robust, has seen the effects of too much ganja (marijuana), cigarettes and alcohol. One of the movie’s most poignant scenes occurs when he prepares and eats a barramundi cooked in embers in the ground.

“It’s like my own supermarket”, he proclaims and adds that he is free.

But his sense of freedom is short lived when the rain comes and the continual wet forces him from his shelter to a rocky overhang where there are ancient Aboriginal rock paintings and then back to his lean-to shelter. He becomes weak and sick and would have died had his buddy not come to look for him.

But though his life is saved, at this point he must leave his country which holds him together, and go to a hospital – another institutional setting for Aboriginal people in which they often do not fair well emotionally and spiritually – which is well portrayed in the film.

He does not stay long in the hospital. Once outside, he seeks consolation in alcohol which sees him go the route of two other familiar institutions – the courthouse and the jail. However, in prison, his time is structured, his life is organised and he gets good food (a great exercise in colour and texture by De Heer) as well as visits from people who care about him and one whose job it is to make sure he can return to life outside – his parole officer.

Through the film Gulpilil was not only able to work through the issues which had beset his life but also speak for how his people think and feel about Aboriginal health, the Intervention, land and housing, meaninglessness of life in the communities, police attitudes and treatment of Aboriginal people, and effects on Aboriginal people of institutionalisation.

The rest of the film moves towards an entertaining and uplifting ending.

De Heer has also given us a compelling script and beautiful and moving cinematography – a true work of art, good casting, a fitting musical score and great dialogue which is mostly in Gulpilil’s native Yolgnu tongue with subtitles. There is wit and humour throughout, though there are also slow, haunting and deeply moving scenes which bring home the movie’s profound and serious messages.

Charlies Country is now showing at cinemas around Australia and was also an official selection at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival where David Gulpilil won a best actor award.

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