Once upon a time, Section 51 of Australia’s Constitution authorized its Parliament “to make laws for the peace, order, and good government of the Commonwealth... with respect to the people of any race for whom it is deemed necessary to make special laws.” In other words, it was legal to create laws that discriminated against indigenous Australians. Not even officially recognized in the constitution, they became among the most marginalized and disenfranchised populations on earth. Once upon a time was 2015.
Director: Rolf de Heer
Producers: Rolf de Heer, Peter Djigirr, Nils Erik Nielsen
Writers: David Gulpilil
Cinematographer: Ian Jones
Editor: Tania Nehme
Music: Graham Tardif
Cast: David Gulpilil, Peter Djigirr, Luke Ford, Paul Blackwell, Bobby Bunungurr, Michael Dawa, Jennifer Budukpuduk Gaykamangu, Gary Waddell
Premiere: July 5, 2014 – Karlovy Vary Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: June 5, 2015
US Distributor: Monument Releasing
Although #AboriginalLivesMatter has yet to take off in Australia, a vibrant campaign is demanding the government at least take the first step and recognize Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in the country's founding document. Next would be the repeal of still existing Jim Crow-like laws, but that effort will likely get bogged down in legal and political quagmires in Australia’s parliament.
Until then, one campaign strategy could be to arrange a screening in parliament of Rolf de Heer’s Charlie’s Country. A sobering depiction of contemporary Aboriginal life in Australia’s Northern Territory, it honors an indigenous culture and history that has been systematically dissolved by federal policies since colonization. No lawmaker could come away from this film unconvinced of Australia’s “national legacy of unutterable shame,” in the words of two judges of the country’s High Court.
But this legacy has been well known for years, so what makes Charlie’s Country noteworthy in this ongoing debate?
First, the deep character development and simplicity of the narrative. As viewers, we are able to fully appreciate the complexities of the Aboriginal situation without the distraction of “the other side of the story.” Charlie (David Gulpilil) is an aging Aboriginal man living alone in a quiet village in the Northern Territory. Along with others from the indigenous community, he relies on the Australian government for his food, housing, and healthcare. Ironically, it’s the state itself that prevents the villagers from sustaining their own livelihoods, banning traditional practices such as spear hunting.
Bewildered by what has happened to his universe over the course of his lifetime, Charlie maintains his spirits by smoking marijuana and hanging out with his friend Black Pete (Peter Djigirr). Much of Charlie’s time is spent in quiet solitude, however, and it becomes clear he’s losing his ability to put on a good face after each degrading experience at the hands of the Australian municipal government. Charlie regularly stares at a faded photo of the opening of the Sydney Opera House, at which he ceremonially danced as a boy in front of Queen Elizabeth. It remains the high point in his life, followed by decades of degrading treatment by the same country that showcased him that day.
This interplay between the past and present is the second reason Charlie’s Country rises above its peers (such as 2009’s Samson & Delilah, which is still worth watching). De Heer and Gulpilil co-wrote the screenplay for Charlie’s Country, marking their third collaboration after the highly regarded Ten Canoes and The Tracker. Both of those films are period dramas, however, and potentially make Aboriginal history seem like ancient history (the same could be said for an American movie like 12 Years a Slave). By contrast, in Charlie’s Country we don’t have to imagine what the legacy of cultural destruction was: we watch Charlie living it today.
The point is driven home even further in the second half of the film, when a frustrated Charlie essentially goes on a walkabout, venturing alone into the bush to live off the land, free from the government’s harassment. His experiment proves more difficult than he can bear, however, and in a cruel twist of fate, he ultimately ends up homeless in an urban Aboriginal community in Darwin. A new set of challenges awaits him there, including his own nearly broken will to live.
A final reason to see Charlie’s Country is that it’s not actually as depressing as I’ve just described, thanks to the absorbing performance by David Gulpilil. Likely familiar to viewers from his small roles in Crocodile Dundee, Rabbit-Proof Fence, and Australia, he’s never had the opportunity to bring such depth to a character. Drawing from a deep well of emotion and life experience shared by many indigenous Australians, Gulpilil’s tragic performance is remarkably alive. His wicked sense of humor, red-hot indignation, and despondent melancholy are perfectly balanced as Charlie tries to reconcile the two worlds he inhabits. It is a towering performance from an iconic actor who may be nearing the end of his career.
Indeed, Gulpilil won Best Lead Actor at the 2015 Australian Film Institute AACTA Awards, and claimed Charlie’s story was a very personal one for him (Charlie’s Country was nominated for Best Film, but lost to co-winners The Babadook and The Water Diviner). A bittersweet victory for Gulpilil, one could say: recognized by his industry peers for his portrayal of an indigenous Australian, even if he is not yet officially recognized as one by the federal government.