People talk about, ‘What is a white director doing making an Indigenous story?’ But I’m not … They’re telling the story, largely, and I’m the mechanism by which they can.
– Rolf de HeerRolf de Heer, quoted in Michael Fitzgerald, ‘Keeping Time with Rolf’, TIME Pacific, 13 March 2006, <http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1172744,00.html>, accessed 5 May 2014.
Few would contest the fact that Rolf de Heer is one of Australia’s most accomplished, noteworthy and distinctive filmmakers. He’s probably the closest thing we have to an auteur. But as D Bruno Starrs points out in his little book on the Dutch-Australian, it’s hard to isolate just what it is that makes de Heer so noteworthy and distinctive.D Bruno Starrs, Dutch Tilt, Aussie Auteur: The Films of Rolf de Heer, VDM, Saarbrücken, 2009. The guy has knack for self-effacement, for handing over the authorship of his films to his collaborators. Think of Dance Me to My Song (1998), whose true voice is given to actor Heather Rose, or of course the Ganalbingu-language film Ten Canoes (2006), in which de Heer makes a sincere attempt to hand over filmmaking authority to the community of Ramingining in Arnhem Land. Paradoxically enough (and, let’s face it, aspirational intellectuals like me love paradox), if de Heer’s directorial stamp can be located, then it’s probably in his concerted attempts to abnegate directorial authority – to, in his own words, ‘relinquish the almost absolute power normally associated with producing and directing a film and cede it to the people I’d be making [the film] with’.De Heer discusses the making of Ten Canoes in ‘Personal Reflections on Whiteness and Three Film Projects’, Australian Humanities Review, issue 42, August–September 2007, <http://www.australianhumanitiesreview.org/archive/Issue-August-September-2007/Deheer.html> accessed 5 May 2014.
This agenda of self-effacement, of empowering his films’ subjects with narrative authority, is most noticeable in the films that he has made with Aboriginal people. As de Heer is a white Australian filmmaker, racially inscribed with political and cultural power, his motivation to become a ‘mechanism’ for the representation of marginalised Aboriginal voices asks to be understood as a consciously formulated politics of filmmaking. De Heer’s clearest ideological motivation is to use his power as a successful white male director by giving it to those without. And so this trend continues with Charlie’s Country, which premiered at the 2013 Adelaide Film Festival and screened in the Un Certain Regard program of this year’s Cannes Film Festival (where David Gulpilil won Best Actor for his portrayal of the titular character).
Charlie’s Country is a brilliant film – and I’m not just saying this to feign support for our local industry. But as de Heer himself pointed out at the premiere, ‘It’s really David’s film.’ And indeed it is, not just because Gulpilil gives one of the greatest performances of Australian cinema, but also because Charlie’s Country, in a very real way, is about David Gulpilil. There are many important parallels between Charlie and Gulpilil that warrant mention – parallels surrounding the circumstances that led to the writing of the script. Unfortunately, they centre on Gulpilil’s drinking and domestic troubles, which were first publicised during his problematic involvement with Ten CanoesSee Garry Maddox, ‘After Jail, Gulpilil Rebuilds His Life with the Help of an Old Friend’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 12 October 2013, <http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/after-jail-gulpilil-rebuilds-his-life-with-the-help-of-an-old-friend-20131011-2vdpm.html>, accessed 4 April 2014 and which, in subsequent years, only worsened. De Heer has stated that much of his motivation in making this film was to keep Gulpilil’s spirits up during a period in prison and to keep him on the straight and narrow during the subsequent parole period:
[Gulpilil had] shifted out of Raminginging [sic], which is the community he comes from, into Darwin and had taken to drinking heavily in a sustained way and often being homeless in the long grass. He was in some way drinking himself to death. On previous film shoots before he was in prison they had to hold him up he was that bad […] He was depressed and he didn’t like prison of course – nobody does. I said, ‘What do you want to do, David?’ He said ‘I want to make more films.’Rolf de Heer, quoted in Maddox, ibid.
For white southerners at the time, it seemed hard to understand (within the terms of our culture of individual achievement) how a man who had achieved so much could possibly become a homeless alcoholic and then imprisoned. But so it was. Perhaps by virtue of his very recognition in white culture, Gulpilil had become terribly alienated from his own Ramingining community, ‘distinguished’ in a way that serves no function in community life. Those of us who are not Indigenous – those of us who have nothing comparable to a spiritual kinship with land – probably can never fully comprehend this.
So it’s a story of spiritual restoration, a story very much about the spirit of its main actor and his need to reconnect with his country and people in order for his soul to be at peace. That is what we might call the film’s personal dimension. But, of course, Charlie’s Country has a more pronounced political dimension, too. As a film set largely in a remote community, it necessarily provides its (mainly white) audience a window through which to view a reality only discussed in passing by politicians and the mainstream media. Here, again, de Heer’s commitment to self-effacement – to empowering the subject – and to the film’s reciprocal relationship with the reality on which it is based works positively towards, if not objectivity, then a kind of egalitarianism of perspective. Like a lot of great realist cinema – Samson & Delilah (Warwick Thornton, 2009), many Iranian New Wave films, not to mention Italian Neorealism – in having the very people who live these lives act them out on screen, the film achieves a factual quality. Yes, we are watching people act for the camera, but the contents of what they are doing maintain a degree of factual truth, and so the film retains a strong degree of documented reality. A document of life in a remote far-northern Aboriginal community – this statement describes a large part of what this film offers.
For some critics, the manner in which Charlie’s Country goes about documenting community life may seem a little heavy-handed and didactic. And, for sure, there’s a conscientious decision on de Heer’s part to ensure that certain points do not go missed, specifically those points having to do with black–white relations. But, for anyone familiar with life in remote communities, such a stark dramatic approach is entirely appropriate because nothing could be starker than the breakdown that exists in a remote Aboriginal community between the local people and the governmental apparatus of white service people set up to ostensibly run the place. The first half of the film demonstrates this breakdown with an almost pedestrian sense of inevitability: Here is a scene of Charlie at the Centrelink office. Here is a scene of Charlie at the general store. Here is a scene of him giving the rest of his money to relatives. Here he is at the employment office. And, of course, here he is at the police station. It’s the everyday that we’re watching. Every day is the same.
Pedestrian though they may be (not unlike the opening of Samson & Delilah, actually), the mundane realities of Charlie’s life convey a great deal about the social dysfunction that prevents him from being able to live adequately, either as a ‘traditional’ elder or as a ‘modern’ Australian. Charlie is stranded between two worlds – worlds that make no sense to and, in fact, contradict each other. Success in one means failure in the other. Freedom in one means slavery in the other. Compliance in one means transgression in the other. The film shows these contradictions again and again: when, for instance, Charlie acknowledges his traditional obligation and promptly hands over most of his welfare payment to members of his extended family, only to go hungry later and have to rely on catching food; when, after having his hunting gun confiscated and receiving a fine, he carves himself a spear to hunt on his own traditional lands, only to have this confiscated as well. And so he relies on the food he can afford from the general store, the food that makes him terminally ill. The contradictions have no end.
Think about it long enough and you might come to the conclusion that social transgression is the only option for people like Charlie. He begins to think so, too. Charlie might sleep underneath a couple of pieces of corrugated iron, but he’s no ‘dummy’: he’s a reader. As a petrol-station manager – and probably the most informed white person in the community we were living in – once warned me: ‘They’re the ones to watch out for, the readers.’ (Believe it or not, the man was far from a racist.) Perhaps because of his exposure to Western norms, perhaps because of his knack for English, perhaps simply because of his analytical mind, Charlie is well aware of the hypocrisies and injustice of the whitefella’s system, and he takes the opportunity to point these out in his own non-provocative way. As he tells the employment officer: ‘You’re in my community, my land, and you have a job and I don’t.’ As he asks the police: ‘How can I have broken a law I didn’t know?’ As he tells his parole officer: ‘You put me in jail for being Aboriginal.’ Each of these comments elicits a kind of bemusement from the white characters, but none of the statements are as easily dismissed as they might first appear. Indeed, from Charlie’s perspective, these statements carry absolute validity – a validity the film asks us to consider. Shifting the gaze into Charlie’s reality, the confrontations with the local police and Centrelink are revealed as nothing less than confrontations with a deeply entrenched colonialist system, almost penal in its character, which prevents Charlie from living a free and healthy life.
Perhaps the film’s most important message has to do with food. History shows that it is often the most mundane, passive and disorganised forms of genocide that have the strongest impact.Take the Irish famine, Joseph Stalin’s five-year plans or Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward – none of these terrible examples could be said to be the deliberate work of a despotic mastermind. They are the products of chaos, absurdity and sheer idiotic disorganisation. The same goes for the bulk of the genocide that has been carried out on Australian Aboriginal communities since 1788. And when Australians look back on this period in history, perhaps the most appalling thing will be the inconceivable callousness with which we supply food to remote communities – all the more so given the rhetoric about ‘closing the gap’. Charlie and his community are literally made terminally ill by their ‘modern’ sugary diet. Healthier options are simply unaffordable, so they are forced to rely on costly trips to Darwin for dialysis treatment (although mobile dialysis treatments are becoming more common in some remote areas, there is no dialysis treatment servicing Charlie’s community). That most people over forty-five seem to be affected is no exaggeration.See, for example, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Chronic Kidney Disease in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People, cat. no. PHE 151, Canberra, 2011, <http://www.aihw.gov.au/WorkArea/DownloadAsset.aspx?id=10737420068>, accessed 16 May 2014. Because of his intelligence, Charlie sees too much, understands too much of his deplorable situation. And so, like many before him, after leaving hospital he chooses a city (Darwin) over his home and resorts to a marginalised existence of boozing and sleeping in the long grass. In a perverted way, it’s a life he is more in control of – an outsider’s life in which the hopelessness of his situation is at least of his own volition. But in a world of self-destruction, every day flirts with disaster … until Charlie finds himself in prison. And the hardened cynics in the audience tell themselves this was inevitable from the start for a man like Charlie. But to Gulpilil and de Heer, this is an unacceptable conclusion.
This is not a film about diagnosing the ‘problem’ with Aboriginal Australia – about finding the ‘silver bullet’, as it has been referred to. If this film is diagnosing something, then it’s the ‘problem’ with white Australians. That’s the proposition Gulpilil presents us at the film’s conclusion: you’ve come to my home, my country, so you should learn to live with me and understand my ways. It sounds reasonable, but perhaps the true gap in this country is the tragic unlikelihood of such an understanding ever even being attempted by mainstream white Australia. Indeed, there’s a tragedy that you can read in the eyes of the white characters, which is almost laughable because it’s so accurate. The white characters tolerate a sadness and a hopelessness (not to mention an anxiety) that Charlie and the other Aboriginal characters, despite their hardships, prevent from invading their spirits. That’s how Charlie and his kin can laugh when the car runs out of petrol 50 kilometres out of the community. That’s why the white service people despair over a piece of paper. Were it not an unacceptable proposition in our enlightened secular culture, one might almost suggest that, for all their material might, the white characters are spiritually impoverished – and that, for all his material imprisonment, Charlie is spiritually free.
|1||Rolf de Heer, quoted in Michael Fitzgerald, ‘Keeping Time with Rolf’, TIME Pacific, 13 March 2006, <http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1172744,00.html>, accessed 5 May 2014.|
|2||D Bruno Starrs, Dutch Tilt, Aussie Auteur: The Films of Rolf de Heer, VDM, Saarbrücken, 2009.|
|3||De Heer discusses the making of Ten Canoes in ‘Personal Reflections on Whiteness and Three Film Projects’, Australian Humanities Review, issue 42, August–September 2007, <http://www.australianhumanitiesreview.org/archive/Issue-August-September-2007/Deheer.html> accessed 5 May 2014.|
|4||See Garry Maddox, ‘After Jail, Gulpilil Rebuilds His Life with the Help of an Old Friend’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 12 October 2013, <http://www.smh.com.au/entertainment/after-jail-gulpilil-rebuilds-his-life-with-the-help-of-an-old-friend-20131011-2vdpm.html>, accessed 4 April 2014|
|5||Rolf de Heer, quoted in Maddox, ibid.|
|6||Take the Irish famine, Joseph Stalin’s five-year plans or Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward – none of these terrible examples could be said to be the deliberate work of a despotic mastermind. They are the products of chaos, absurdity and sheer idiotic disorganisation. The same goes for the bulk of the genocide that has been carried out on Australian Aboriginal communities since 1788.|
|7||See, for example, Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Chronic Kidney Disease in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People, cat. no. PHE 151, Canberra, 2011, <http://www.aihw.gov.au/WorkArea/DownloadAsset.aspx?id=10737420068>, accessed 16 May 2014.|