Bastardy: MA, 84 minutes. Director: Amiel Courtin-Wilson. Starring: Jack Charles.
During the opening scene of this documentary, the principal subject, Jack Charles, displays his arm to the camera as he shoots up with heroin. This is part of who I am, he explains, so if the film is going to be truthful, it might as well go all the way. The image of Charles injecting his drug of choice recurs throughout the film.
Charles is a colourful character. He's an Aboriginal elder, and a professional film, television and theatre actor who has worked with Geoffrey Rush, Neil Armfield and, notably, on Fred Schepsi's seminal The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. Charles is a patron to his people; he founded the first Aboriginal theatre company, Nindethana.
He is also a part time criminal who has been in and out of jail for 40 years. The 58-year-old, found at the start of Bastardy to be living contentedly on the streets of Melbourne, justifies his acts of serial burglary as 'collecting the rent' from affluent white suburbanites who dwell on what could rightfully be considered Aboriginal land.
For seven years Bastardy follows him with a nonjudgmental gaze, even with the sympathy of a confidant. That opening scene establishes the stark confidence with which Charles regards the filmmaker, and also his audience.
Charles makes no excuses. He is what he is. The heroin, he says, makes him feel good, and does no-one any harm but himself. ('If this is harm ...' he utters blissfully.) And who can fail to sympathise with his acts of theft, from people who have plenty to spare, in the face of his appeals to the historic, systemic oppression of Indigenous people?
Charles takes the viewer through all the space and corners of his world. We follow him on set for his latest gig, and to the scenes of past crimes. We see him regale pedestrians with folk songs, his voice and guitar chords gritty like the concrete of his urban surroundings. He exudes confidence, but there are hidden insecurities. He hates to be dirty, he confesses, as he doesn't want people to mistake him for a bum.
We sit with him as he recalls his longtime attachment to another man — as far as we can tell, the only significant romantic relationship of his life. This is one of the most moving scenes of the film. As he reflects on his sex life and admits to the emotional attachment, this is the only time the gregarious Charles seems shy.
Charles may have the gift of the gab, but his bravado is not without its chinks. He rips off someone he and the filmmaker are acquainted with, and when Courtin-Wilson confronts him, he flounders. It permits the viewer to wonder if he believes his own well-rehearsed rhetoric.
Bastardy is neither an exercise in apologetics, nor a morality tale. Needless to say, Charles' miscreant deeds do catch up with him. The prospect of another stint in jail, at his age, is a terror to Charles, who has previously been nonchalant about his convict history.
The film's final moments find him wondering if he can kick his vices; if he can go clean, go straight, and live out his remaining years on the straight and narrow. Charles' life has been a drama, and despite the film's credit roll, the curtains are yet to be closed.
Bastardy will have a limited two week theatrical season from 25 June. Sydney: Chauvel Cinema, Melbourne: Kino Cinemas, Brisbane: Palace Barracks Cinema, Adelaide: Palace Nova Eastend Cinemas.
Tim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles and reviews have been published by The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier-Mail and The Big Issue.