Over the past four decades, Gulpilil’s performances have helped to shape the way in which Indigenous Australians are perceived and Charlie’s Country is no exception. The film, directed by Rolf de Heer, provides a nuanced and realistic insight into the struggles of Indigenous Australians in modern Australia.
Gulpilil performs with honesty and depth, on-screen almost every minute of the film. Long close-ups emphasise the intensity of his eyes, which convey a potent mixture of frustration and hope. Yet the film has a sense of light-heartedness and irreverence. Gulpilil brilliantly balances compelling seriousness and cheeky humour, especially in scenes where Charlie banters with the local police force. Charlie becomes increasingly frustrated by his lack of autonomy, yet his ability to laugh at his own misfortune makes him an engaging and relatable character.
Charlie’s Country provides an insider glimpse into a culture that most will have only seen from the outside. Intimate cinematography places us by the campfire as Charlie thinks quietly, and amongst homeless alcoholics as they drink beer in the park. While the film’s extremely slow pace and sparse dialogue may alienate some viewers, it serves to reflect the tempo of Charlie’s lifestyle. The plot is loosely structured, yet the tangential storyline doesn’t diminish the film, rather it creates a raw sense of realism.
De Heer and Gulpilil, who co-wrote the script, make every effort to avoid cliché stereotypes of Indigenous Australians. Charlie’s attempt to go out into the bush and live off the land ends disastrously. As he lies coughing and shivering in the rain, the film subverts romanticised images of an Aboriginal walkabout. Yet when Charlie then attempts to live in the city, equally dire consequences result. Tension bubbles between Charlie and his community as he experiments with change and it seems that trying to take control of his own life proves both exhausting and alienating. Gulpilil portrays a character stuck in limbo between two worlds and while the film offers some measure of resolution at its close, its greatest success is that it does not attempt to over-simplify the issues. Instead it highlights the difficulty and complexity of balancing the old ways and the new.
Though Charlie’s Country tells the story of one man, it reflects the struggle of so many others. The film provides an intimate, funny and moving insight into difficulties faced each day and ultimately asks viewers to reconsider their preconceptions about Indigenous Australians.
SAMUEL BLASHKI is an LLB student at Monash University.