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December 8, 2014

DVDFestivalsFilm + EntertainmentInterview | by Francesco Cerniglia

CHARLIES_COUNTRY_Charlie and Faith

After surprising Venice with The Tracker in 2002, and winning the Cannes Special Jury Prize with the universally acclaimed Ten Canoes in 2006, Rolf de Heer adds yet another stunning title to his filmography about Aboriginal Australian culture. Charlie’s Country is mainly a celebration of de Heer’s long time friend and Aboriginal icon David Gulpilil, who also won the Best Actor prize in Cannes for his interpretation. Since Walkabout (1971), Gulpilil has never stopped surprising with his strong performances, naturalism and authenticity; his charisma and a life of great highs and miserable lows made him the symbol of a generation, and brought Aboriginality into the mainstream of the screen arts.

Charlie’s Country tells the story of an Aboriginal man, Charlie (Gulpilil), who lives in a community in the Northern Territories of Australia. His constant fight against the white society’s prejudice and neglect fuels his desire to go back to the swamp where he was born, and live in the old way. De Heer has no remorse in exposing the government’s ignorant and preposterous approach to this social issue, and deals with Charlie’s personal conflict in a very sympathetic yet objective way. Charlie’s Country is an insight on Charlie’s problems with alcoholism, his inadaptability to modern society, and the unsolvable struggle between surviving in the artificial security of government-controlled communities, and enjoying freedom in the wild and unforgiving Australian forest.

We met director Rolf de Heer at the BFI London Film Festival, where he presented Charlie’s Country in the “Journey” category, and asked him some questions about his relationship with David, Aboriginal culture, and what it means to be an Aboriginal man in modern Australia.

You and David go back a long way. How did you meet, and what kind of relationship do you have?

I have known David since before The Tracker. We shared important experiences together before making the film, and respect and friendship grew out of that. I wouldn’t call it a conventional friendship, because culturally we are too different, but within what’s possible there is an ongoing relationship.

How did you decide to make a new film together?

Well, initially I had no intention of making another film. After The Tracker – where David’s performance is so good that the film lifts and rises thanks to it – I had started working on Ten Canoes, but David was going through major difficulties and left his community. I ended up making the film without him, using him only as narrator. Over the years I had less to do with him, and we only spoke occasionally. I knew he was in an alcoholic spiral; he did a film where they basically had to hold him in front of the camera, it was that bad. I eventually heard that he was in jail, and weighed 39 kilos. He had stopped eating completely; he was trying to drink himself to death – in a subconscious way. There was nothing he could do with his life. So when I went to visit in him in prison, I asked him if he had thought about what he wanted to do when he got out, and he said that he wanted to make a film with me. And I agreed, it was the right thing to do.

CHARLIES_COUNTRY_Charlie in front of his humpy

So are the various situations in the film real? Is Charlie living the events that led David to be incarcerated?

Not at all. You see, many Aborigines of his age have gone to jail; their incarceration rate is very high. In David’s case, he had a relationship with a woman; she is very charismatic but very difficult, and a terrible substance abuser. She provokes him all the time, especially when on an alcoholic or drug induced spiral. She can be very charming, but they often fight, and once the police got involved and arrested David. She didn’t want them to, but at that point it was too late. With the average white person, the police would just have said “if you drop the charges he’s free”, but they wanted to make an example out of an Aboriginal like David. Jail is never easy, but it’s particularly hard for Aboriginal people. Making a new film gave him something to look forward to, helped his transition to a better way of life, and gave him a form of income when he needed it most.

Let’s focus on the current status of Aboriginal communities in Australia. From what you say, it sounds like a segregational type of environment.

I wouldn’t call it segregational, but it’s definitely racist. It’s a real, inevitable problem. We must try our best to not generalise, though. The problem is that the government has a “one size fits all” approach. When we speak about Aboriginal communities, we must remember that there is no thing such as the “Aboriginal nation”: Aboriginal people speak different languages, have different cultural habits. Some men have been completely disposessed, but some are doctors and lawyers. The other problem is that governments work on election cycles, which is ludicrous for something that will take such a tremendous amount of time to solve. In the end we just need to be fair, and make them feel equal. Why does it have to be them who learn our language, and not us making an effort in their direction? We talk about “the Aboriginal problem” but never of the “white people” problem, and that’s exactly what this is about.

How does the white man perceive the Aboriginal communities around him?

It depends on the white man. There are many shades of grey between understanding and not understanding, between trying to help and exploiting the situation. For many years, a tremendous amount of money went towards “the Aboriginal problem”. Some people resent the welfare Aboriginal people receive, or try to rip them off as much as they can. That’s one extreme, and on the other side are the very decent people who understand their issues and want to help. Also, there is change happening. It’s a process, and now it’s different from 20 years ago. It’s hard to understand how change happens, and certainly it’s not always for the better.

CHARLIES_COUNTRY_Charlie leads the police

Change is a powerful theme in Charlie’s Country. Charlie lives in a limbo between what he would like to do, which is living in the forest, and accepting change and moving to the city.

Change is a very interesting thing here, because the Aboriginal culture is set up to resist change. Charlie’s community has come out of the bush only in 1972; David himself was born under a tree. They are still emotionally close to the bush, but now they live in a town built specifically for Aborigines; the government are forcing together many different clans with different languages, and this is wrong, because they shouldn’t and don’t want to live together. On top of that, there’s no work there, and they obviously don’t understand the money economy. Our social structure doesn’t apply to them, and their social structures don’t apply to the type of town they live in, because they normally share everything. If David has 300 dollars in his pocket and goes to the shop 200 metres from home, by the time he’s back there’s only coins left and a few cigarettes; everything else is given away. So yes, there is a lot of sitting around in a limbo: they can’t go back to the bushes, but because of the high unemployment rate, they can’t afford cars and houses either. And what if you want to go hunting and need to register your rifle, or get a license for your car? Well, the nearest place to register a car is 500 kilometres away. But if you don’t do it, you’ll still have problems with the police.

Do you believe, over ten years after The Tracker, that people have changed their mind on this type of issues? Do you see any differences, socially and culturally?

There’s greater awareness, yes. The consciouness is changing, but only very slightly.

CHARLIE’S COUNTRY is available on DVD from December 8th

Review and interview from the BFI London Film Festival

Davide Prevarin