Grace and quiet rage in David Gulpilil's country

Another Country (G). Director: Molly Reynolds. Starring: David Gulpilil. 75 minutes

In last year's Charlie's Country, David Gulpilil played an Aboriginal man from a remote community, raging against the entrenched social and political realities that impede him from genuine engagement with his traditional culture. Another Country can be viewed as a kind of documentary companion to that fictional film. Co-written by Gulpilil, his longtime collaborator Rolf de Heer, and director Molly Reynolds (who previously collaborated with de Heer on the documentary Twelve Canoes), it offers, with grace and quiet fury, a commentary on the ongoing, systematic oppression of Aboriginal flourishing and culture.

Gulpilil, in voiceover, introduces us to Ramininging: a remote, manufactured community in Arnhem Land. He measures its distance from Darwin by the number of river crossings (23), and defines the community's rough edges by the points at which traditional values clash with the imposed or inherited trappings of Western culture — including attitudes to time, money, and physical waste. The film covers similar thematic ground to John Pilger's didactic documentary Utopia; but Guplilil, with his inside perspective and quietly compelling manner, is more persuasive than the astute but belligerent Pilger.

Gulpilil's narration, however, is only one aspect of what amounts to one of the most illuminating documentaries you are likely to see on remote Aboriginal life. His voice comes in slow, sporadic waves over some truly remarkable footage, that takes us deep inside the daily life of the people of Ramininging, and captures the dimensions and undeniable beauty of the physical space that it occupies. Cinematographer Matt Nettheim deserves much praise for his camerawork, which is at once inquisitive and unintrusive, beautifully composed but with a fly-on-the-wall fluidity.

We spend time with some of the town's characters, such as a pair of artists and elders who, says Gulpilil, have much wisdom in Yolngu culture, but none by Western standards. Also, a man who found Christianity while in prison, and who now on Easter Sunday leads an epic reenactment of the Passion through Ramininging's rain-flooded dirt streets. The filmmakers offer this extended, utterly absorbing sequence without comment, save for Gulpilil's ultimate summation; that in the degradation of his trial and execution, Jesus is neither God nor leader; 'He is black. He is one of us.'

The film gains power from such alternation of showing and telling. A shot of a kangaroo being chased down the street by a town dog seems to have been played for laughs. But humour is quickly dispelled by the sight of the panicked beast crashing into a chainlink fence; a literal collision between the natural and the built. Soon, the townspeople gather. Hunter-gatherer culture notwithstanding, it is shocking the way the now trapped and defenceless beast is unceremoniously slain. There is an implied dissonance here between traditional practice and current existence that is genuinely unsettling to behold.

'Things are not right in Ramininging', says Gulpilil. Once again his simple words cut right to the heart of the matter.

Corrected: This review previously stated that Molly Reynolds co-directed Rolf de Heer's film Ten Canoes. De Heer's co-director on that film was in fact Peter Djigirr.


Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Acting Editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, David Gulpilil, Rolf de Heer, Molly Reynolds


 

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