Rolf de Heer, “Charlie’s Country” (2013)
A sad and compassionate film of a man’s search for identity and belonging, “Charlie’s Country” originated as a vehicle around lead actor David Gulpilil’s talents and experiences as an Aboriginal man living and passing between indigenous Australian society and Anglo-Australian society. In its minimalist presentation, the film is layered in its depiction of how Aboriginal people at the Top End (Darwin and surrounding areas) often live and the ways in which Anglo-Australian society through its representatives and institutions unthinkingly and insensitively creates problems for these people in their attempts to live either traditionally, in white society or in some combination of the two. The film’s style, reliant on long takes of Gulpilil close up and with sparse dialogue, is very poignant and does a far better job of expressing emotion and deep feeling than one with more talk and fewer striking visual scenes.
Charlie (Gulpilil) is an elder in his Yolngu community who is becoming increasingly disenchanted with life in his tribal community. The period is during the time of the Northern Territory Emergency Response Act aka the Intervention of the early 2000s. Young people are estranged from their traditions and express little interest in living the way their ancestors did. There is no work to be had in their community and everyone lives on government handouts and unhealthy junk food. Few people express dissatisfaction with their dreary lives. Charlie goes off with a pal to hunt and shoot a buffalo (so they can provide their people with fresh meat) but their prize is confiscated by police when the coppers discover the two men do not have licences for their gun and rifle. The two protest but the laws concerning gun ownership have changed to become harsher and more punitive.
Fed up with the white police and his own people’s apathy, Charlie decides to leave his community and hunt, fish and live as his ancestors did. For a few days he is happy but then the tropical rains come and, no longer in good health thanks to years of smoking ganja, he falls ill with pneumonia. In the nick of time, his friends find him and the police arrange for him to be hospitalised in Darwin. In the hospital, he is reacquainted with an old buddy who eventually passes away from kidney failure. Grief-stricken and fearing for his own life, Charlie escapes from hospital into the streets of Darwin and promptly falls in with a group of alcohol-addicted Aboriginal people. He shares his money (earned from helping police track escaped criminals in the bush) and buys alcohol for the group but the police chase him down and he is tried, convicted and sent to jail for buying and giving grog to people banned from drinking, and for resisting police arrest. Jail is a disheartening and dreary experience but a young counsellor finds Charlie a dry community to serve out his time.
The first half of the film is basically expository, establishing Charlie’s complex relationship to the police – it is sometimes joking, sometimes a little hostile – and does a good job of fleshing out Charlie’s character. Charlie is sometimes dignified, outspoken, not a little rebellious and often quite funny in a sad way. He manages to be knowledgeable about many things yet remains something of a naif. Audiences see the conditions in which Charlie’s community ekes out an existence; the extent to which white people control Aboriginal people’s lives (to the point of feeding them deep-fried garbage that makes them sick over the long term) is alarming. The whitefella rules under which Aboriginal people must live are often contradictory and force them into a culture of apathy and unhealthy passivity.
The second half of the film deals with Charlie’s odyssey in Darwin and is filled with stereotypes about Aboriginal people in urban settings. It’s as if whatever Charlie can do wrong or go wrong, the incident then happens (with or without Charlie’s participation). The plot is forced: how does the Aboriginal woman in Darwin know where to find Charlie and take him to her fellow drunks? How do two elders find Charlie among the drunks and warn him of the dangers of alcohol? The film deals with Charlie’s dilemmas gracefully and without judgement, and Charlie is eventually reunited with his people. A new creative opportunity arises that uses Charlie’s skills as a dancer and which finally allows him to find his own niche within his community that is creative, and the film ends on a happy note. Yet this part of the film seems much weaker than the earlier half and the resolution of Charlie’s earlier unhappiness a bit too pat. He may be happy teaching dancing and painting to younger people and warning them against the demon drink, but artistic activities and avoiding alcohol and imprisonment will not solve the community’s problems of unemployment and being controlled by Federal and Territorian governments through handouts, policing and punitive laws.
Apart from Charlie who completely dominates the film, other characters are little more than stereotypes. Most actors in the film had no training as actors yet their performances are sincere. The film does a good job though showing that the white people who interact with Charlie themselves are also struggling with a system (which they don’t necessarily understand) that treats them as cyphers and cogs at the same time that it is unsympathetic towards Charlie’s community.
With the powerful themes and messages about belonging and how people cope with an inhumane capitalist system that oppresses and separates white and black people alike, “Charlie’s Country” inevitably comes to a resolution that seems quite thin and insubstantial. Charlie may have found a creative outlet that gives him opportunities to let off steam and help the children in his community, but how long that will pass, and whether whitefella laws will let it continue or nip it in the bud, is hard to predict. Nevertheless this is a very moving if at times quite biting and comic film.