The devastated face of Aboriginal disempowerment


Charlie's Country (M). Director: Rolf de Heer. Starring: David Gulpilil, Luke Ford. 108 minutes

Charlie (Gulpilil) is a man divided: both a hero and a victim of White Australia, he yearns for a more traditional lifestyle but limited by the boundaries that mark out his existence in the remote community where he lives.

On the one hand, he savours the memory of having danced for the Queen at the opening of the Sydney Opera House nearly half a century ago, and may be found gazing longingly upon a much-perused photograph of the occasion. On the other hand, he lives within the shadow of the Intervention, incarnate in the form of stern if affable white coppers, who confiscate first a gun and then a finely made spear, both held by Charlie with the intention of hunting game. He harbours stoic fury at the presence of these lawmen who reside on stolen land.

Charlie's Country charts, in part, his variously successful, belated attempts to escape his oppression. He is disempowered, but not powerless, not yet. He has quit smoking, and ritualistically burns cigarettes he bums from a younger man in the community. He'd prefer to hunt and forage rather than consume the 'whitefella junk' peddled at the local kiosk, though his emaciated body and persistent cough reveal that he has already suffered much from the 'poisons' introduced to Aboriginal culture since the arrival of Europeans.

One of the police officers, Luke (Ford), is friendly, but can't suppress his latent racism. 'You blackfellas are smart when you want to be,' he opines. Charlie is amenable as far as Luke's good graces serve him. At one point he assists Luke by 'tracking' two shady drug dealers who have come to town, and whose hiding place Charlie himself helped them find. His betrayal of the drug dealers is not unfounded; they've been jacking up the price of the ganja that is one of Charlie's few vices. Charlie may be disempowered, but he's nobody's fool.

One segment in the film is dedicated to Charlie's attempts to abandon White society altogether, to return to his mother's country and live off the land. He spends a night in a cave where the paintings, the stories of his ancestors, invade his dreams, first inspiring then disheartening him with their transience. His rapture at hunting and devouring a feast of fish is soon dampened, literally, by the savage elements, and by the rigours of isolation, which inflame his ill health. He winds up in hospital in Darwin, sick and morally deflated.

Despite his efforts to resist, Charlie is worn down by the strictures of White Australia, epitomised by the Intervention. He has a spell in prison, and we watch in real-time as his resplendent silver mane is shaved to the skin, revealing the gaunt, devastated visage beneath. This is the nadir of his disempowerment, as well as the basis of his eventual renewal. Later, back among his own people, he realises his obligation to impart cultural knowledge to the next generations. For Charlie, there is affirmation in knowing that the line won't be broken.

This is de Heer's third collaboration with Gulpilil (see also The Tracker and Ten Canoes), whose participation as co-screenwriter ensures the film provides a genuine Indigenous perspective, rather than just a white man's soapbox. At times it lacks momentum, although its laconic but dogged pace is well in keeping with the character of Charlie. Gulpilil himself possesses a great deal of strength within his wiry frame, and brings a weight of both sorrow and determination to his portrayal. Charlie's Country is Gulpilil's film, and it's powerful.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Charlie's Country, Rolf de Heer, David Gulpilil, Luke Ford, Intervention, Darwin



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Existing comments

Thanks Tim for your review of Charlie's Country coming at a fitting time in this NAIDOC week. Charlie/Gulpilil and their stories do bring both sorrow and determination to the reality of indigenous life in Australia.
Celia | 10 July 2014

....thank you ,Tim for your sensitive reviews which I've been reading just now.I'll be searching for more of your writing,which I feel is honest & sympathetic-again,thanks...E.D.
evangelia dascarolis | 23 July 2014


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