No country for aboriginal men
Charlie’s Country, drama, not rated, in Yolngu and English with subtitles, The Screen, 3.5 chiles
Native people who are forced to live by laws in conflict with their longstanding way of life can face a continuous struggle — it doesn’t matter if they are on a reservation or in the city, in the U.S. or Australia. In the Australian feature Charlie’s Country, director Rolf de Heer illustrates this struggle with just enough heartbreak and hope to keep you watching. Charlie is an aboriginal man on the dole, and his heart is still in the old ways, not in the “bastard white man’s culture.” He’s got humor and humanity to spare and has become the go-to man for odd jobs — for drug dealers and cops. Charlie is aging, and he doesn’t have enough food to eat or a good set of teeth to eat with. He’d like to have his own house. “You’ve got a house and a job on my land,” he tells a white bureaucrat. “Where’s my house? Where’s my job?”
After Charlie and his friend shoot a buffalo for meat, cops confiscate their guns because they’re not carrying licenses. Outraged that a hunting license costs 60 dollars and that he’ll need to buy a new gun, Charlie makes a spear instead. A cop confiscates his spear — it’s a “dangerous weapon.” Resentful of how cops clamp down on his way of life, Charlie loses what little faith he had in the system. Instead, he tries to look for his “mother country.” His reversal to bush life is a memorable sequence — it’s at once a reverie and a reminder of nature’s elemental force. Staying dry is not easy, but it’s only when he’s in the bush and feeling free that Charlie has the impulse to paint and dance.
The film keeps its meditative pace and sense of humor through the setbacks in Charlie’s life — his hospitalization and, finally, his arrest. David Gulpilil as Charlie gives a stoic and deeply felt performance, for which he won a best actor award at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival. This is not the first time Gulpilil and de Heer have collaborated and, in fact, this story was conceived when de Heer visited Gulpilil in prison.
In the film, Charlie is released from prison, but nothing seems to have changed when he returns home. Junk food still rules in the convenience store where the residents buy their food. “The food in prison was better than this!” Charlie cries out. In the end, whether or not he’ll transmit knowledge of the old ways to younger aboriginals may be the most important choice Charlie will make.
Back to the land: David Gulpilil