The difficulties Aboriginal Australians face in their communities are primarily documented in the media by reports on violence and alcoholism. Often living in locations classified as remote or very remote and without access to regular healthcare or adequate education, many face minimal prospects in life. It’s an ongoing issue within Australia, and state/territory and federal governments are attempting to make improvements. But it’s only in the last 10 or so years that films depicting the plight of the Aboriginal peoples have truly begun to make an impact in helping the public understand at least part of the crisis. Rolf de Heer is no doubt a leader in this movement — the Dutch-born director has made multiple films that manage to make people conscious of Australia’s real backyard.
Charlie’s Country is perhaps the most comprehensive of recent Australian films that explore the modern reality of Aboriginals. While films like Samson and Delilah also explore community life, the eponymous Charlie is an old man with knowledge of both community and urban worlds. It gives a greater scope to understanding the true complexity of the situation, and the story, co-written by de Heer and his iconic Indigenous star David Gulpilil (Walkabout, Crocodile Dundee) reflects a life come full circle. There are few directors that regularly champion the stories of indigenous Australians; three collaborations with Gulpilil have made for a strong relationship between him and de Heer. In the case of their latest project, through the eyes of one man, we’re witness to a tale that explores traditional and modern values within the most simple of interactions and stories.
Charlie (Gulpilil) is a man who does not know where traditional values end and modern ones begin. He feels trapped in his community, wanting the same privileges as the white man and bemoaning the lack of general opportunity. He is a mischievous but good-hearted person (in Australia known as a larrikin), helping the police catch criminals but then turning on them for his own benefit. He clings to the past, and can’t see a fulfilling future. A decision to “go bush” in an effort to return to his roots sets Charlie on a path of discovery, changing the way he sees his homeland and his situation.
The film is essentially a look at how the Northern Territory intervention (officially the NT National Emergency Response) has affected one man. Introduced by the Australian Government in 2007 to tackle child sexual abuse in remote Aboriginal communities, it was a pivotal moment in the efforts to strengthen relations between the population and the government. Widely criticised and ultimately replaced by another (similar) policy, the intervention brought in programs assisting people with welfare as well as more police to remote areas, and imposed restrictions on alcohol and pornography.
For Charlie, the police presence and inability to survive comfortably doesn’t sit well with him. He goes through each day wondering how to make things in life better. He’s not ashamed to ask for help, but loses confidence when he doesn’t receive what he believes he deserves. The film is structured in three chapters, each of which dramatically change the tone of Charlie’s story. His time in the community is laced with witty interactions and establishes human connections, while his walkabout brings a complete alienation from the world. His return to society, which takes him to the (comparatively large) city of Darwin, brings his story full circle, as he is forced to reconnect with the modern world. These stark contrasts make for a shift in his attitude, but he tries his best to keep his humor and optimism alive.
Gulpilil’s depth as an actor is revealed to us beautifully. De Heer knows his star, and uses his talent in an almost haunting way. The facial expressions in this one-man show are extremely powerful, Gulpilil showing Charlie’s complexities with ease. A man’s thoughts are not usually so easy to read, but de Heer’s implication that words are largely unnecessary speak volumes about the situation at hand. To understand Charlie’s sadness for what he sees as a cruel, changed world is heartbreaking. To see where his journey takes him – from the run-down areas of closed communities to urban Darwin and the natural beauty of Arnhem Land – is enough to see the extreme difference of how people in Australia live. But Charlie’s uncertainty about his mother country is perhaps the most challenging thing to witness; the changes to his home might be subtle, but felt in a big way by those like him who now feel unable to express themselves or share their story.
This third collaboration between de Heer and Gulpilil, after The Tracker and Ten Canoes, was rightly a Cannes Film Festival hit. Gulpilil’s Un Certain Regard Best Actor win affirmed the strength of their professional relationship, as well as a great individual performance. Cinema should be grateful for the exposure Charlie’s Country has received as a result of its Cannes selection. Stories like this help highlight the need to look at how governments handle future relations with indigenous populations — or at least alert the public to what’s going on in a very isolated part of the world. The sad reality is, there are many people even within Australia who remain blissfully (or wilfully) ignorant of what happens in the nation’s most remote areas.