I'm writing this just having returned from a special preview of David Gulpilil and Rolf de Heer's Charlie's Country. It was a most moving experience, and having read some of Gulpilil's recent unfortunate history, all the more so. If you have any strong feelings one way or the other re the Northern Territory's Intervention Program, this film is either going to reinforce them or change them completely.
Charlie is tired of living the white man's way, be it the unhealthy diet or rules which appear crazy to an Aboriginal tribesman. He wants to return to the country that nurtured him as a child. His health and the weather let him down, and he is soon in the heart of the white man's country – a hospital in Darwin. The paternalism of the Federal Government in dictating his pay, his housing, his alcohol intake, and his health care, are replaced by the paternalism of the hospital and judicial systems.
The Northern Territory scenery is breathtaking, and the photography certainly does it justice. Compare this with the starkness of the hospital and gaol. The repetitiveness of gaol life is reinforced by daily accounts of Charlie's day, from morning inspection, to laundry duty, to bulk unhealthy lunches slopped out in the mess, through to nightly lights out. Charlie is pictured staring through the fence at the end of each monotonous day.
This is also a story of true friendship as his fellow community members do all they can to support him in good times and bad. This makes for a very satisfactory ending, but be prepared for some quite harrowing moments.
The story moves slowly in parts, but this builds atmosphere, as does the tinkling piano soundtrack. It proved too slow for one couple who left the cinema early in the piece. Perhaps they were expecting an action packed script. As with de Heer's Ten Canoes, be prepared to read the sub-titles.
It is no wonder that David Gulpilil was awarded Best Actor in the Un Certain Regard of the Cannes Film Festival. Knowing his history, much of his part was not acting, but playing out his life. One hopes that such a talented man can continue to make a living through this medium.
I was really looking forward to this preview as I had been most impressed with de Heer's Ten Canoes. I was not disappointed. I'm giving this movie five stars.