4 stars
In a remote northern community, Charlie (David Gulpilil – Satellite Boy) is struggling. A government crackdown has, by and large, taken the fun out of life. The cops confiscated his gun, then his spears (dangerous weapons), his catch (a water buffalo), they offer poor food and won't give him a home, they won't let him drink and by ironic intervention, make him help catch his dope dealer. Convinced that the old ways have got to be better than oppressive whitefella law, Charlie heads into the bush to live with his ancestors.

Charlie's Country was in competition at this years Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard) where Gulpilil won Best Actor for his outstanding, yet seemingly effortless, performance. He is sublime. Director Rolf de Heer (Ten Canoes) was also nominated. What the jury recognised was the film's poignant conversation about an already marginalised people who are being depersonalised, piece by piece. Gulpilil and de Heer (the co-wrote the screenplay) achieve this with a remarkable sensitivity and a broad sense of humour.

Because, of course, Charlie's plans don't stack up against the reality of life in the outback. What is at first a successful reunion with his country, bad weather soon leads to pneumonia, a hospital stay in Darwin and access to all the things he can't get at home: namely grog, and a spell in jail. It seems the white man is always there to trip him up (represented by likeable policeman Luke Ford – Animal Kingdom – whose racism runs close to the surface), but not to catch him when he falls.

This is the third collaboration between de Heer and Gulpilil after Ten Canoes and The Tracker, each exploring the Aboriginal experience within different yet clearly linked frames. Identity is the heart of each film as its central character is forced to interact with another culture (a different nation, colonial thugs or police). Here in the present it seems that relationship is the least successful of all. “You got a job. And a house. On my land,” says Charlie to the officer in charge. “Where's my house?” His plaintive request landing like a slap in the face.

Charlie's Country is a heartfelt experience born of frustration, a film that is at its best in the bush, at its most obvious in town. With lines like 'I have trouble pronouncing foreign names', perhaps that's the point. There's no room for subtlety when discussing the unsustainable relationship between white and black Australia. Set against the stunning landscape of Arnhem Land (eloquently captured by Ian Jones' dazzling cinematography), it is a more poetic experience than The Tracker, less austere than Samson & Delilah with which it shares similar themes. With Gulpilil front and centre, his precise wit keeps this from simply being an angry jab at authority. Charlie's Country is a warm and reflective account of a man struggling to retain his dignity in a fading culture.


Previewed at Roadshow Theatrette, Sydney, on 24 June 2014

David Gulpilil
Peter Djigirr
Luke Ford
Bobby Bunungurr

Rolf de Heer

Rolf de Heer
David Gulpilil

(with subtitles)


108 minutes

July 17, 2014
Charlie's Country (2013) on IMDb
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