Co-written by director Rolf de Heer and David Gulpilil, Charlie’s Country tells it like it is. Charlie (Gulpilil) lives in a humpy in a remote community where the local police are enforcing whitefella law, especially the restrictions imposed by the Howard government’s intervention legislation. While Charlie appears to have a cordial relationship with the local policeman (Luke Ford), what he says to him in his own language is not the light banter that the young policeman assumes it to be: “You stole our land. You got a job and a house on my land. I want a house for me.” Luke wants to be transferred to the city. He doesn’t trust the Aborigines, believing that “if you go soft on them, they take advantage of you”. Yet it does not occur to him to repay Charlie for his help in tracking criminals. Sick of whitefella junk food, Charlie and his mate Black Pete (Peter Djigirr) try to source traditional bush tucker, only to have their car, guns and spears confiscated. Little wonder that Charlie refers to whitefellas as “thieving bastards”.
Despite his apparent nonchalance and sense of humour Charlie’s frustration is mounting as is his overwhelming grief for what his people have lost, achingly depicted in a close-up of his tearful face as he waves farewell to Fat Albert who is being flown out to hospital in Darwin for dialysis. Charlie knows that his old friend will “die in the wrong place, a long way from [his] country, no-one with [him]”.
Soon after, Charlie goes bush, living off the land and reconnecting with his culture. Wearing a pair of stylish reading glasses, he fashions spears and paints on bark. His return to his mother country is, however, thwarted by the onset of the wet season. A stint in hospital in Darwin leads to a stint in prison because he has been supplying Faith (Jennifer Budukpuduk Gaykamangu) and her “long grass” mates with alcohol. The brief but graphic scenes of police raids on these fringe dwellers are ugly and disturbing, highlighting the inter-racial tension. “Piss off and go back to your community” prompts the comment: “They should just shoot us like in the old days”.
Particularly symbolic is the scene where Charlie’s distinctive long grey hair and beard are shaved off in prison. Looking straight into the camera, Gulpilil subtly conveys how Charlie’s identity is being taken away from him. Even when still and silent, Gulpilil’s face tells us so much. Similarly, his beautiful posture and rhythmic gait convey Charlie’s innate dignity. An acclaimed dancer himself, Gulpilil has chosen to make dance the means by which Charlie can re-establish himself within his community. “I danced for the Queen of England,” he proudly tells the community kids as he shows them his cherished photo of Aboriginal dancers performing at the opening of the Sydney Opera House.
With Peter Djigirr as co-producer, Peter Minigululu as cultural advisor and Gulpilil as writer, Charlie’s Country paints an authentic picture of life in the “communities”. Unashamedly political, the tragedy of this Aboriginal everyman’s story is counterpointed by the sense of humour that has sustained his people throughout the past two centuries. The fact that de Heer has worked on numerous occasions with director of photography Ian Jones and the whole production team doubtless explains the peerless production values of this film. It fully deserves the hype generated by Gulpilil’s Best Actor award in Un Certain Regard at Cannes.