Charlie's Country

Blackfella Charlie is getting older, and he's out of sorts. The intervention is making life more difficult on his remote community, what with the proper policing of whitefella laws that don't generally make much sense, and Charlie's kin and ken seeming more interested in going along with things than doing anything about it. So Charlie takes off, to live the old way, but in doing so sets off a chain of events in his life that has him return to his community chastened, and somewhat the wiser.


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  • ★★★★½ review by Anthony Le on Letterboxd

    Part of A Film A Day

    Part of Essential Films To Watch

    "I was born in the bush, they didn't find me in the bush."

    Holy shit. I'm still trying to decide whether Charlie's Country or Whiplash was my favourite of the festival. I think what made this film so enjoyable for me was that I wasn't expecting anything from it. I had heard that it was a good film, and though it even won Best Actor at Cannes, I wasn't particularly interested. The story of a native, aboriginal man living in the Australian outback isn't usually a film I would love. But, Charlie's Country is definitely about more than the majority of it's synopsis' profess.

    On the surface, Charlie's Country is about a marginalized indigenous man, who fears the hard-hitting effects of the cultural assimilation of his community after the installation of a police station. And though Charlie hasn't especially fond of his culture in the past (or so it seems that way), with this new change in the community, Charlie aims to rebel against the government and live "the old way" as he puts it.

    And though that premise sounds interesting, Charlie's Country is about so much more than that. It paints us a portrait of a man who is, essentially, an aimless wanderer. It shows us that at any age, you can still be confused about the direction you want your life to go towards. As for Charlie, he is just as confused as an 18 year old trying to choose a career path. And it does all this in a rather light-hearted, inspirational tone. Charlie's Country shows that even if you don't achieve your goal, what's important is that you tried.

    At the centre of these important themes, and the gorgeous cinematography is the amazing, tender, soulful performance from David Gulpilil, perhaps the greatest (and most well known) indigenous actor of all time. But Charlie's Country is surely the great performance of his career. The performance he gives is moving, deeply saddening and truly represents the despair of the effects of assimilation upon indigenous peoples. And why does it seem so easy for him to play this role? Because he actually lives this film. It's almost like a documentary, as Rolf de Heer captures David Gulpilil in a rather familiar situation. And that's why the performance seems so natural, and the emotions so raw.

    Charlie's Country is one of the best I saw at CIFF, and surely one of my favourites of the year. It features a magnificent performance from a great actor, and it presents a story that's not only inspirational, but powerful as well. The cinematography is amongst some of the best I've seen in any film, and the themes are amazingly picked. Charlie's Country is definitely one that everyone needs to experience.

  • ★★★½ review by Tasha Robinson on Letterboxd

    David Gulpilil was 15 when he starred in Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout. Now he's 61, and after a career of tracker and wise-man roles, he's scripting and starred in a film that speaks to his life experience. Charlie is an Aborigine living near Darwin, Australia in a small community dominated by white police, who start confiscating the local hunters' guns and spears, leaving them with no way to continue sustenance hunting. So Charlie heads into the bush to try to survive "in the old way." There are echoes of Into The Wild here, though the agenda isn't quite that direct and tragic; still, this is a melancholy, thoughtful, artful film rather than a raging one. Full review for The Dissolve here.

  • ★★★★ review by Ruth on Letterboxd

    Serves as a requiem of sorts for an old country and culture which will never return as it once was, a familiar trope in international 20th Century art. A haunted protagonist, trapped between two worlds, navigates the spiritual costs of an Aboriginal-Australian future. Despite this difficult material, de Heer's undercurrent of dark humour is still richly intact, and it does nurture a more uplifting, constructive conclusion, through finding a way to keep Charlie's Country alive.

    Charlie's Country takes a rather balanced and truthful look at the plight of the remote, somewhat bicultural indigenous Australian, and the slow, dark realisation that they can't really return to the old way, but also are hopelessly trapped in the horrific state occupied by remote Indigenous Australians in wider Australian society going forward (at least during their lifetime anyway). It's a spiritually-defeating fringe dweller existence betwixt a rock and a hard place, a frustratingly enduring culture clash devoid of sufficient sensitivity between tradition and modernity. The constraining talons of white society, and their differing laws, crawl into almost every nook and cranny of remote Indigenous communities. The indigenous are placed at the soul-sapping mercy of welfare. Whilst Charlie has managed to find a way to resiliently laugh off a lot of these observed and felt contradictions, a series of frustrating encounters polarise him away from the straight path, and towards pursuing a return to an old way of life. However, the new world also inescapably flows through his veins, and the old way of life is no country for old men. He realises that there is no going back, at least for him. At this point, Charlie is spiritually lost. Following some further anguish, Charlie is lured into the spiral of drink, and following a broken windshield scene which chillingly brought back memories of the explosion of frustration in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, he has a stay in prison, before winding up back where he started, and finding a different way to keep the old way alive. He heroically impersonalises himself by passing on a suffocating culture to a new generation.

    Whilst at first glance some of the 'white' characters here might seem a little one-note and obnoxious, most of these characters are actually realistically flawed with multiple layers, with their own real-world counterpart truths. In constrast to something like the repulsively propagandist Utopia, this was more refreshingly balanced. The Darwin doctor, for instance, represents the crucial need for cultural sensitivity in the health system (the 'foreign' comment is a gasping moment). For instance, if an uneducated Indigenous man has diabetes or lung cancer, and is told to cut the sugar or cigarettes from his diet, without getting across the causal connection there is less chance of the vital information being effectively communicated and absorbed. The wet-around-the-ears police officers also show the stresses of coming from a big city into a troubling undernourished community. We also glimpse relatively adapted Aboriginal elders, along with those hopelessly gripped by (and therefore banned from) the toxic drink. The nature of the European invasion and later systemic racism haunts over the various people caught within this scenario, including the trapped indigenous people, and the various law and health professionals in interaction with these communities. In various ways, the spectre of alcohol in particular is recurringly utilised here as a manifestation of racial disadvantage. It's a reminder that indigenous affairs still has a pragmatically vital place in the forefront of Australian policy.

    The direction here was perfect, as always from de Heer. The prison sequence was particularly striking, with the clean shaven scene being a highlight. The film rises to a new level as a result of this routine and practically wordless prison sequence.

    David Gulpilil, as usual, is also fantastic here in what might just be a career-topping performance. The semi-autobiographical nature of his performance is truly haunting, and his ability to juggle good-natured humour and irony with pathos is extraordinary. To me, this performance was somewhat reminiscent of Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, and Gulpilil still retains that fantastic physical shape and demeanour he held way back in Walkabout all those 43 years ago.

    My cinema experience was somewhat curtailed by the cinema goer next to me. She noisily ate through a box of popcorn for the first 30 minutes, as if she had not eaten for a year, not stopping to take a breath. She also possessed an irritatingly loud look-at-me laughter (you know the type), gargled in ugly fashion by the half chewed popcorn still lodged in her oesophagus. She also took her jacket off during the film, before later putting it back on as a blanket. You know, it's great to see someone really getting into a film like Charlie's Country, but in terms of cinema etiquette, I found her incredibly distracting. Obnoxious patron aside, I am still really happy I saw this in cinemas.

    This film confirms that Rolf de Heer might just be the greatest auteur in the history of Australian Film. Whilst there have been other sensational directors to emerge from Australia, de Heer has maintained a distinctly local focus, and his body of work in that regard is arguably unparalleled. Complete with several of his regular cast and that ever-present vein of dark humour, de Heer continues to unearth the darker societal stories of this continent behind the attempts at neighbourly decorum. Rolf (not the other Rolf) and David are both among Australia's greatest living treasures in the medium of film. Very close to 4.5 stars, and very close to topping their greatest collaboration to date; The Tracker.

  • ★★★½ review by laird on Letterboxd

    This is a movie with a five star central performance and a mostly five star screenplay and mostly five star direction that only suffers from some unevenness in regards to subtlety. For all of the wonderfully understated, thoughtful moments that are simply observing Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil's face--a face which itself tells almost as much story as one could possibly need--there are others that are punctuated with an overbearing soundtrack that bullies the viewer into feeling something that most anyone with eyeballs and a soul would be feeling anyway. Can we just agree as a species to shelve the generic melancholy piano sound until we've sufficiently forgotten how corny it is? There are moments in the sound design, otherwise, that are transcendentally beautiful. As the aged "Charlie" is being helicoptered to a hospital the sound of the whirring rotor blades gives way to the natural sounds of the bush as the camera moves from Charlie's pensive, sad face to the view outside the helicopter of the motherland from which he is forcefully withheld.

    Minor complaints aside, this is a (mostly) subtle burning condemnation of colonialism that doubles as a classic triumph of the spirit over adversity story with a structure and grace that set it apart from the kind of soft soap sap we usually get from Hollywood produced stories of a similar ilk. I just wish it was more consistent with the light touch, because when it comes down hard it does start to resemble the kind of pablum that old white liberals go to see to feel good about themselves (for my Seattle people: the kind of movies that played every other week at the Seven Gables). Thankfully, those missteps are few and far between.

  • ★★★★ review by Michael Scott on Letterboxd

    Charlie's Country opens with a static mid shot of it's eponymous everyman, played by Australian legend David Gulpilil. Charlie survey's his home, taking in the corrugated iron walls, the stained mattress on makeshift struts, the campfire's smoke. We survey Gulpilil's face, his map of creases, framed by greying ringlets, worn-in by a life lived on his land. His face, more than any other working within Australia, is able to tell a story by its presence alone; it doesn't need words.

    It is no casting director's coup that Gulpilil's well-worn features match so perfectly with Charlie's own. Charlie's story has been drawn from Gulpilil's, which despite the actor's renown is not an uncommon one for Aboriginal men in remote communities: poor health, alcohol abuse, incarceration, disillusionment and distrust. The character, created in collaboration with director Rolf de Heer, is an incisive summation of a life lived between two worlds, one which pins the still-present colonial mindset to the ground and strips it bare for all to see.

    None of this is news. In fact, de Heer and Gulpilil's efforts here are successful because they treat Charlie's world with such world-wearied pragmatism. Their screenplay doesn't hold too tightly to Western narrative convention, nor should it given its non-assimilationist theming. Instead, taking the lead from traditional storytelling, things just happen, and happen, and happen. Charlie's Country is episodic, repeatedly returning to Charlie's almost inconsequential battles, repeatedly rubbing ash into familiar wounds. The beauty of Gulpilil and de Heer's film is that they manage to condense the immensity of a life of relentless oppression into an approachable, straightforward, contained scenario, and that they do so with such generosity of spirit.

    Guliplil is central to Charlie's Country's magnanimous soul. His endearingly persuasive performance, which works its way under the skin through its irrepressible blackfella humour, contextualises the plight of Aboriginal people living under the Australian government's "intervention". Gulpilil's performance eschews overt conflict, relying instead on Charlie's resigned acceptance of the inevitability of his subjugation. Gulpilil lets Charlie good-heartedly simmer away until the oppression pops his lid. It's a completely believable slide into open rebellion, and one which realistically explores the swamping of Aboriginal culture without having to simplify down to cinema's fallback "black versus white" tropes.

    Australia has long struggled to articulate its long, muddied and complicated history with its First Peoples. To the credit of everyone involved, Charlie's Country encapsulates the long-lived and still-in-force pressure for cultural assimilation in a story so simple that will be difficult for even the most entrenched cultural biggots to misunderstand. In a week when our prime minister (and minister for Indigenous affairs) disgustingly managed to reassert the outmoded view of terra nullius, to a group of businessmen no less, this sort of plain talking is nourishing, It is just such a shame that it is in such dishearteningly short supply.

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