Amiel Courtin-Wilson, “Bastardy” (2010)
Several years in the making due to its subject’s predilection for stealing money to feed a heroin addiction and doing long stints of jail-time as a result, this film is a labour of love by Amiel Courtin-Wilson about Jack Charles, a stage actor of Aboriginal descent. The documentary follows Jack Charles’ life from 2001 to 2008 when he was both homeless cat burglar and actor and features him as both on-screen and off-screen narrator about his life and past career. Courtin-Wilson not only followed Charles closely but formed a very close friendship with the man to the extent that he was Charles’ go-between and point of contact with the Victorian police force whenever Charles was in trouble – which he was quite often due to a heroin addiction.
The film disingenuously claims to present Charles’ life as it was during those hard years but audiences get a sense of Charles himself lapping up the attention and turning on the charisma for the film crew. Without going overboard and going all hammy, he exaggerates a little where the opportunity allows and there is a slightly unreal quality to his routine as he tramps about the streets looking for somewhere to doss down for the night. He allows the film crew to film him injecting himself with heroin on at least three occasions and though the filming looks straightforward and matter-of-fact, one can’t help thinking that he’s looking forward to hearing of audiences’ reactions to his shooting-up episodes. What a cheeky bugger!
While he busies himself entertaining fellow homeless men with his guitar-playing and singing, meeting and greeting other folks, and stealing money from households in the wealthy Melbourne suburbs of Kew and Toorak, we are treated to insertions of snippets from old films and film-stills of Charles performing on stage and in movies from the 1960s – 1970s. Charles talks briefly about how he became a stage performer at the age of 18 years and graduated from the stage to performing before a camera. He speaks of the thrill of performing as a different character before a live audience and the creativity and skill involved in inhabiting another role and bringing it to life. At another extreme, he drops hints about his dreadful early childhood – he was separated from his family at the age of 10 weeks and brought up in a foster home for boys where he was bullied by others and given little affection – and mentions a brief romance with another man during the early 1970s which ended due to his uncertainty about his capacity for loving another human being.
The film is put together skilfully and has an easy and gentle stream-of-consciousness flow that shows off Charles’ resilience, generosity and good humour. He is not perfect of course and there is something often very child-like and naive about his approach to life. People warm to his open nature but he also attracts the odd crook or two. He regrets taking up heroin in the early 1970s but for much of the film until its last 20 minutes he is undecided about weaning himself off heroin by going on a methadone program. By following Charles about and allowing him freedom to go where he wants and to talk about aspects of his life as he sees fit, the film reveals a great deal about what it might be like at an individual level to be homeless and to live on the margins of society without moralising and condemning Charles for the choices he has made or not made. The issue of the Stolen Generations – referring to the period spanning much of the 20th century during which Aboriginal children were separated from their birth families and brought up in foster homes or institutions where many of them were abused physically and sexually – rears its ugly head as context for Charles’ early upbringing and his disinclination to form long-term love relationships.
The music soundtrack is a wonder to behold with starkly idiosyncratic singing and acoustic guitar and percussion performances from CocoRosie. The choice of CocoRosie to score much of the music was inspired as sisters Bianca and Sierra Casady themselves have indigenous American heritage and spent their childhood travelling from one part of the US to another every year with their mother.
Since the film was made, Charles made an effort to give up heroin by going on a methadone program and for a few years now has been clean. He has now revived his acting career with a one-man touring show and as of this time of writing is preparing to perform on stage in London. The film may have provided Charles the impetus to change his life. Regardless of whether it did or didn’t, “Bastardy” is still an interesting documentary about a very eccentric larrikin character who despite his age and the opportunities lost to him over the years still has much to give and whose life may really have just begun.