This land is your land, Charlie keeps reminding himself. An Aboriginal Australian who lives by his wits and survives on a dole that only allows him to afford what he calls “white man’s junk food”, Charlie is angry but has no outlet for his frustration.
All he can do is hurl abuse in his native tongue at the police station that has come up on community land. Whenever the police call Charlie to be a tracker – use his hunting skills to help them in cases – Charlie has no choice but to obey.
He can’t use his modified gun or a spear – these markers of identity have been deemed weapons of destruction by the authorities, dangerous in the hands of those who use them for killing animals rather than other humans. Hunting for food is prohibited too. It’s a minor miracle that Charlie and his friends retain a sense of grim humour at the tragicomedy that has been forced on them by colonisation, insensitive policies towards indigenous people, and Western notions of civilisation.
Rolf de Heer’s Charlie’s Country (2014) is out on MUBI. The movie follows the Australian director’s previous collaborations with the singular actor David Gulpilil, including The Tracker (2002), in which Gulpilil’s character aids a criminal investigation.
Gulpilil, who died in 2021, shot to international fame with his very first film appearance, as a teenager in British director Nicholas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971). Over the years, Gulpilil became one of the most recognisable and powerful symbols of Australia’s Aboriginal community in the word.
Gulpilil has co-written Charlie’s Country with de Heer. The actor’s voice rungs loud and true throughout a shattering tale of dispossession, futile rebellion and hard-won resilience. Through lengthy takes that are respectful of Gulpilil’s acting rhythms as well as the several non-professionals in the cast, de Heer creates a moving portrait of a once-proud people shoved to the margins.
The film’s themes will be familiar to anybody who has tracked the dislocation of Adivasis in India or followed debates on how so-called upliftment policies have only served to alienate them from their traditions. Charlie’s retreat into the bush is calming, but also reminds him that a return to the old ways isn’t possible anymore. Among his responses is a defiant laugh. They may have taken his land away, but his reactions are still his own.