Rolf de Heer’s Charlie’s Country opens in the US trailing an illustrious history. At the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, where the movie played in the Un Certain Regard section, David Gulpilil won the Best Actor award, while de Heer secured a Best Director nomination. Gulpilil also won Best Actor at Australia’s AACTA awards, and Australia entered the movie as its contender for the 2015 Best Foreign Language Film Oscar.
The film’s focus on an aging, recalcitrant, Northern Territories Aborigine, the eponymous Charlie (Gulpilil) turns inside out the cliché of indigenous populations as first-world problems to be solved via government aid and legal sanctions. Through a subtle script, exceptional acting, and a compelling partnership between de Heer and DP Ian Jones, Charlie’s Country shows how the steady erosion of one individual’s autonomy illuminates an entire nation’s past.
De Heer locates his movie in a very specific space and time, the Northern Territories of Australia in the aftermath of 2007’s government-led “intervention” there. Later re-named the Stronger Futures Policy, the program was ostensibly launched to protect indigenous children from violence and abuse. Via much-needed services and much less welcome round-the-clock surveillance, the national government targeted the ways of life of nearly one-third of the Territories’ population, its Aboriginal citizens.
The film adopts a classical, three-act structure to lambast the destruction of traditional communities, once more, in its wake. It begins in the Yolngu town of Ramingining, where Charlie is living in voluntary exile as the indignities of absurd laws deprive him of his last vestiges of autonomy. The movie then follows his revelatory sojourn in the bush in search of the solitary harmony of the “old ways” of itinerant living. The final act opens with Charlie in Darwin, where the conscious choice of homelessness, drinking and the colonization of parks and open spaces, colloquially called long-grassing, creates a modern version of now untenable “old ways”.
We first meet Charlie sitting inside his humpy (a low-slung, hand-built, corrugated iron shelter). Here Jones’ static frames explore every furrow of Charlie’s face, and also suggests the camera’s metaphorical struggle, emulating that of white Australia (and indeed, any colonial power), to understand the life and the aspirations of the indigenous inhabitants of the lands they conquered.
The camera observes Charlie’s rituals of waking up, going into the village and interacting with the exclusively white administration of his town, revealing his life as if on his own terms. Less and less is he a cantankerous, unkempt, close to indigent elder, and more and more, he emerges someone whose attempts to reconcile government policy and his own autonomy constantly collapse. The matter-of-fact, shot-counter-shot structure of these interactions emphasizes the absence of common ground, even in the meaning of words, between white bureaucrats and Aboriginal citizens. It is as if the film is intercutting two entirely separate conversations that happen to unfold in the same space. If Charlie is not always likeable, he is beginning to earn the audience’s respect.
Much of that respect emerges from Gulpilil’s uncompromising performance. His gnarled face is graven with the real history of living as a marginal citizen in one’s native land. For, despite his string of successful film roles, which began with Nicholas Roeg’s 1971 Walkabout while he was still a teenager, Gulpilil has struggled with alcohol and drug abuse, and began the planning and scripting of Charlie’s Country with de Heer while incarcerated far from his home community.
On screen, that planning translates into a wholly unsentimental performance, shorn of excess gestures and expressions, and carried more through the body than in the face. As he swings lithely into the bush after a buffalo, or spears and cooks a fish, or treads steadfastly through the trees and florid emerald undergrowth of the deep bush, Gulpilil expresses a joie de vivre Charlie shows nowhere else, adding further nuance to the character, a man capable of living well through his own senses and actions.
Finally, although the movie is as much a visual narrative as a verbal one, the script matters. Cowriters de Heer and Gulpilil concoct a succinct gem, graveled with dry wit and sorrow. Especially in the early scenes, Charlie pins the bureaucrats into absurd corners. When the housing officer says that he has a house because it comes with his job, Charlie demands to know why he can’t have a job, too, so that he could get a house. No answer. When the doctor castigates him for not eating well, Charlie points out that he can’t eat with dentures that don’t fit, leaving the doctor to back off hastily, muttering that he’ll have to wait for the dentist to answer that one. And it slowly emerges, in clipped phrases and wry asides, that it’s the “white” junk food for sale in the local shop that Charlie can’t eat with his dentures, and that it’s the white bureaucrats who are turning his hunting for “tender” bush meat into a crime.
Thus the audience begins to understand, as Charlie does, the cascade of minor indignities that erode self-worth: the charming doctor who asks if he can call him Charlie as he has trouble pronouncing foreign names, the lowly country police officer who first confiscates Charlie’s ancient shotgun because he cannot produce a certificate of purchase, and then confiscates his replacement, a lovingly made hunting spear, as a dangerous weapon. Every exchange moves the action and character forward so that, when Charlie cracks, and decides to return full-time to a solitary bush life, it seems the only logical response to the restrictions he faces.
Charlie’s Country entrenches itself in Australian history and contemporary culture through a cinematography equally fluent in city, bush landscape, and hardscrabble village, and a script that tells the heartbreaking story of an ancient people through the story of a single man. Its specificity allows non-Australian viewers to translate Charlie’s narrative, in its glories, its tragedies, and its persistence, to their own cultures’ post-colonial flounderings, whether their empire was one of land grab or economic hegemony. Charlie’s Country confronts its viewers with the rationale of the oppressed, with a transient but genuine joy.