Saturday, 19 July 2014

"Charlie's Country": a film review

About a week ago, I was invited to attend a preview (at the State Cinema in North Hobart) of the new Australian film "Charlie's Country", starring the iconic Aboriginal Australian actor David Gulpilil.  Following the preview, there was a conversation about the film with the director, Rolf De Heer.

Charlie, played by David Gulpilil, is an Aboriginal Australian man of late middle age - bordering on elderly - living in a small community in the Northern Territory.  At one level, Charlie is critical of the impacts of western society on his community, particularly as seen in the effects of the abuse of alcohol, tobacco, drugs and "whitefella junk food".  At another level, Charlie personally participates in his people's adoption of these western vices with some level of enthusiasm.

Charlie was a noted dancer in his youth.  He looked with some level of personal pride to the time when he was a member of the troupe of traditional Aboriginal dancers who performed at the opening of the Sydney Opera House, in the presence of no less a personage than Queen Elizabeth II.  Even so, when he was asked to teach the traditional dances to some of the local young people, he declined, saying there were others who were far better at the dances than he was.

Charlie decides to leave the town and go out to the bush to live "in the old way", hunting, fishing, and cooking his food over an open fire.  (The scenes where he cooks and eats a fish that he caught are worthy of any gastronomic scene in "Babette's Feast".)  The scenes where Charlie is living in the bush are paced in a leisurely manner, reflecting the culture and the environment.

Things begin to change.  Charlie becomes ill as a result of exposure in a heavy rain.  He is evacuated to hospital in Darwin, the main city of the Northern Territory.  After leaving hospital, he is drawn into the company of a community of urban Aborigines living in a park in Darwin and indulging in the various "whitefella" vices with great enthusiasm.  After committing a minor, "nuisance" offense (an offense for which a "whitefella" would merely receive a stern lecture from the judge), Charlie goes to prison.

After release from prison, Charlie returns to his community.  He seriously tried to avoid the "whitefella" vices that got him into trouble.  One scene at this point in the film shows him throwing some cigarettes into a camp fire, one by one.

Finally, Charlie is asked once again to teach some of the traditional dances to the kids.  This time he says yes.  The film ends with Charlie teaching the dances to the young people and talking once again about his involvement in opening the Sydney Opera House in the presence of the Queen.

This is a film about human transformation, both positive and negative.

The example of negative transformation is seen particularly in the character of one young, white police officer, who at the beginning of the film is well-disposed to the Aboriginal community and seeks to make a positive impact on the relations between the racial groups.  As the film goes on, he hardens and becomes a bigot.

The example of positive transformation is in the character of Charlie.  For most of the film, Charlie is on the verge of self-destruction, whether intentional, or unintentional, or a combination of both.  At the end of the film, Charlie finds wholeness for himself as he teaches the dances to the young people.  Wholeness for Charlie is found in two things:  (1) engaging in the tradition of his people and (2) doing something positive for others.  That sounds like a pretty good formula for wholeness for any of us. 

While there isn't a single word about religion in this film, I believe this is a profoundly spiritual film.  Charlie's search for wholeness was a profoundly spiritual search.

This film is worth seeing a few times.  Catch it in the cinema.  Buy the DVD.  It's definitely among the group of films that we should all, particularly those of us living in Australia, view, "mark, learn, and inwardly digest".

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