Charlie’s Country – Rolf de Heer (2013)
There are two reasons I left this continent until last. Firstly, most of the countries outside of Australia and New Zealand are small islands that do not have much or any film production, secondly, sounds ridiculous but I didn’t know what to damn call it? Google seems to pretty certain that you just refer to the continent as ‘Australia’ but I’m pretty sure most people here say ‘Australasia’ and there’s the odd ‘Oceania’ knocking about too. Anyway, Australia it is. And Australia (the mainland) is where we will begin.
This week’s film is brought to us by Dutch-Australian director, Rolf de Heer, who was born in the Netherlands and moved to Australia at age of 8. He has a number of films on Aboriginal issues, for example Ten Canoes, also starring David Gulpilil (as the voiceover), an aboriginal man, raised in the bush who was discovered by Nicolas Roeg when he was just sixteen, when Roeg was in the area scouting for locations. He then promptly cast Gulpilil in his international success, Walkabout. He speaks multiple different indigenous languages as well as English, and is prehaps the most renowned traditional dancer in Australia. He is also the centre focus of this week’s film, Charlie.
I watched the film without fully understanding its context, but upon watching an interview with De Heer after, I learnt that it is an open critique of the ‘Northern Territory National Emergency Response’, also known as ‘The Intervention’, a move introduced by the Australian federal government under John Howard in 2007 to address allegations of child sexual abuse and neglect in the Northern Territory‘s Aboriginal communities. Although the move sounds well meaning and understandable, the film depicts how problematic the implementation of police stations by these communities are. Gradually, their presence destroys aspects of the “blackfella” traditions, forcing them to behave and live like the “whitefellas” stationed in their areas. Charlie’s community are banned from bringing alcohol onto the site, and face 6 months in jail for their first breach of this law, despite the fact that many members of the community have clear drinking problems. Charlie has both his gun and his homemade spear, that he used to hunt meat for dinner, confiscated because the white policemen tell him it is a “dangerous weapon”, forcing him to eat the “nasty whitefella food” they’ve bought into the area.
It almost reminds me of a teen film where the protagonist is wandering, lost, trying to discover where they fit in to society, but Charlie is not a teen, he is fast approaching his sixties. He doesn’t recognise his community post the intervention, and wants to live ‘the old way’, which doesn’t go to plan either. Gulpilil’s acting is really touching, it is quiet, contemplative, and at times very funny. There isn’t an excessive amount of dialogue, but where there it is powerful and overtly political. De Heer has said that the film is not representative of how strongly he opposes the Australian government, as if to say he toned down the politics. That, I think, is quite telling since it came across as very overtly critical at every opportunity to me. I remember at one very powerful point white policemen destroy a woman’s camp, kicking it to pieces violently, to which she responds “Why don’t they just shoot us like in the old days?”
The film, and its performances are a stunning representation of alienation and raises some important social issues of mistreatment towards indigenous in present Australia that I otherwise would have known nothing about. It is also partially biographical, as De Heer wrote the film to rescue a friend in crisis, being asked by an incarcerated Gulpilil for help. You can find out more about the film’s context here.