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Charlie’s Country

By Pamela Nathan

Charlie’s Country is a very powerful film – The Rolf de Heer film stars David Gulpilil who won best actor in Un Certain Regard at the Cannes Film Festival.

Evan Williamson wrote an excellent review (‘Star turn from David Gulpilil in Charlie’s Country’, The Australian, July 19, 2014) and I take excerpts, adding my own comments in italics:

“It is three films in one. First, it’s the story of Charlie, a Northern Territory man played by Gulpilil in what must rank as his finest performance. It is also the story of Gulpilil himself, his redemption and ultimate salvation, in large measure made possible by de Heer’s support and friendship. And it’s the story — so far as it can be told in one short film — of Australia’s indigenous people: that long, proud and often tragic narrative of dispossession and cultural conflict, with all its suffering and endurance.”….

“This is the third of de Heer’s trilogy of films about the indigenous experience, following The Tracker and Ten Canoes. Gulpilil starred in the first as an Aborigine enlisted to track down the murderer of a white woman, and was the narrator of Ten Canoes. All are bold and ambitious works, and in all three de Heer deals with transcendental themes without bombast or pretension. On its surface, and only on its surface, Charlie’s Country is a film of the utmost simplicity — the kind of simplicity that gives depth and resonance to a host of emotions and ideas.”

“Gulpilil is hardly ever off the screen. De Heer’s cameras (the splendid cinematography is by his long-time collaborator Ian Jones) dwell reverently on those gnarled and craggy features. We see Charlie’s face bearded and bedraggled, we see him spruce and clean-shaven, we see him in company and in solitude, at rest and at work. We see him laughing and crying, angry and content. And when he’s not awake, we see him sleeping in a campsite, in some rain-drenched humpy, in a prison cell or in a hospital bed, his every expression — anger, contentment, laughter and tears — telling us something of his inner life, his memories and ours.“

I was relieved to see Evans notes the deceptive simplicity of the film and the powerful emotional world Charlie portrayed. Other reviewers have commented on the “flatness” of Charlie as a character which I think completely misses the unutterable despair and even hatred portrayed and the relentless vicissitudes of his daily life. On a number of occasions, I found I had to look away and could not hold the stare of Charlie which reached into my gut rendering me appalled and anguished. Charlie looking through the prison bars was one gut wrenching scene and a scene which heralded great acting but also the grim, annihilating  realities of prison life for Aboriginal inmates caged on country or a long way from country. Other reviewers commented on the seeming lack of direction of the film and its slowness but I think what is slowly depicted are the daily uncertainties, futility, and timelessness of the world of some Aboriginal people living the life of Charlie in post colonial Australia today.

The film begins with Charlie living on an Aboriginal settlement in Arnhem Land, sharing some basic accommodation with his people. It’s squalid and overcrowded and Charlie is getting humbugged.  He longs for a house of his own, but the government won’t give him one.  He asks the whitefellah housing officer who tells him he has a house and Charlie says: “not like yours and yours is on my country and you have a job on my country, too”. At every turn he finds himself confronting whitefellah law and officialdom. The local cop is a stickler for things such as gun licences and car registration. The copper stopped them and questioned them about whether they possessed a gun licence or not. The copper confiscated the buffalo Charlie and co had killed. They didn’t have gun licences because maybe they could’t afford one and maybe they couldn’t read. He won’t let Charlie carry a rifle or walk through the town with a wooden spear (“a dangerous weapon”). Charlie’s response is to steal a police car and head for the scrub. He goes fishing, builds a little bark hut and resolves to return to his tribal beginnings as a hunter-gatherer. No such luck. Frail, ageing and drenched by rain, he is discovered half-conscious in the bush and carted off to hospital with pneumonia.

“Some viewers” Evans says “will have no patience with Charlie: ‘Why should the government give him a house? He’s already got somewhere to live. Why doesn’t the poor bugger get a grip on himself and do some useful work for a change?’ I wonder if de Heer isn’t determined to provoke a few racist reactions, forcing even the most benevolent viewers to look afresh at their attitudes and prejudices”.

Evans goes on to say: “There’s a refreshing absence of rancour in Charlie’s Country. Charlie shows no bitterness towards the whitefella, nor the whitefella towards him. Early in the film, a playful exchange of greetings with Ford’s cop (“You white bastard”, “You black bastard!”) more or less sets the tone. Those doctors and officials and parole ­officers — even the proprietor of the local grog shop — treat Charlie with courtesy and affection, whatever patronising attitudes may lie below the surface”.

I am not sure I agree with Evans here. The cop got very angry with Charlie, and lashed out physically and ranted about the ravages of the drinking parties on the landscape. Charlie, indeed without rancour but with pride and protest, spoke to the magistrate in court in language and told the magistrate he was being arrested on his country and he was arrested because he was having a drink but harming no-one. The magistrate was impatient and did not hear or want to hear what was said. This court scene was very powerful indeed and captured a cameo of black white relations which precede the court and which occur in courts; the bastion of  civilised reason and morality pitched against depravity and criminality, but therein can lie the banality and ordinariness of rancour projected.

Indeed I recall in February 2014 the police actively looking for Aboriginal people drinking. I recently saw a police-van cross the sandy, snaking Todd River filled with gums and grassy tussocks. I stopped and watched from a distance. I couldn’t see anyone. The indigenous Arrente people know this river as Lhere Mparntwe.  Suddenly the river bed becomes alive with Aboriginal people. I see the children running to the river bank. The people walk around like they are taking a walk in the park. Then I realise they have been sitting down drinking; out of sight and hidden by scrub. Now the scrub hides their alcohol. It is against the law to drink within a 2 km zone of the town and it is against the law for many Aboriginal people to drink in their homes. The two police officers walk around. No frey! The police were looking for lawbreakers.  I wondered what impact policing and rounding up of parents has on children; the children who take flight perhaps in fright. Since the early years of this century Aboriginal people have been subject to restrictions on their movements. The police continue to round up people. The past is not past.

The simplicity of the film is deceptive. Charlie’s face is unforgettable and there is a haunting anguish and horror along with humanity that is the world of Charlie’s Country belying the past and the present of Australia and relations today.

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