Like most countries, Australia is a nation tarnished by an ugly, compromising history. It takes true insight and a steady hand at subtly to produce a contemporary Australia piece which reflects the convoluted Aboriginal condition. Dutch Australian director Rolf de Heer is fast becoming identified as the go-to-guy for real, prepossessing Indigenous cinema. I adored the unrelenting patience within the film and the corresponding patience it demanded of its audience, forcing viewers to really look. A certain poetry afflicts the film, a stirring melancholic melody plays over and over (curtsey of Graham Tardif), and the shots linger for unusually lengthy times on David Gulpilil. An unyielding sorrow and despondency shadows the film despite an affectionate, tasteful humour gracing the feature at many a moment. It is ultimately Gulpilil's performance which remains the crowning achievement and attraction of the film: a striking portrait of a man plagued by the darkness of our history and left directionless as a result. The screening was followed by a Q&A session with Rolf de Heer, whom spoke freely about the process behind the collaborative creation with David Gulpilil which came to be Charlie's Country.
Blackfella Charlie's community life is an odd one: he collects fortnightly government benefits only to give most away, he's in with the police, with drug dealers and squats on his own land because his house has no room for him. Hungry, suppressed, indignant and desperate he despairs, ultimately deciding to "go bush", to live the old way. What proceeds is a ready exposition of the compromising, modern Aboriginal culture.
Fluid in his direction, Rolf de Heer's artistic eye has the film skilfully capture the complex dynamics of the place of Aboriginals in society today. Charlie dances with the law, rolling from one end of the spectrum to other: from assisting the local police force in the capture of drug suppliers to facing serious penalties for committing indictable offences. The feature provides unlikely insights into the limitations of the law in applying to Indigenous communities whose afflictions are ironically a consequence of the "white influence". Conflicted and somewhat impotent to his situation - Charlie is much in touch with his community yet desperately isolated. Sympathy and a strangely genuine concern for central character Charlie from the audience is earned early on in the film. His gentle movements on camera as he makes quiet conversation with himself and shuffles around his few belongs are presented endearingly.
Awarded best actor in the Un Certain Regard category at the Cannes Film Festival, David Gulpilil presents his audience with an extraordinarily memorable performance. It is the secret melancholy and the adept understanding he harbours of the difficult circumstance of his beloved people that wins the audience over and over. Whilst the story may not be strictly true to his own life, inferences were no doubt drawn from similar experiences. The collaborative stream between Rolf de Heer and David Gulpilil extended beyond the actor-director relationship with a screenplay having been crafted together during Gulpilil's prison sentence. The raw ideas put forward by Gulpilil were broadened and moulded into the story arc by De Heer. And surely the product is a synergetic piece, seamless throughout.
The film is not without its charming supporting acts with brief, effective contributions from Damon Gameau and Ritchie Singer, more prominent representations by Peter Minygululu, Luke Ford, Peter Djigirr and Jennifer Budukpuduk Gaykamangu. Each of these coherently and tastefully complementing the illustrious performance supplied by Gulpilil, who is undoubtedly king of this show.