Charlie's Country: A foreigner in his own country

By Peter Calder

Peter Calder talks to Rolf de Heer about the challenges for a whitefella telling a blackfella's story

David Gulpilil won an award at Cannes for his part in Charlie's Country.
David Gulpilil won an award at Cannes for his part in Charlie's Country.

For a whitefella Australian born in the Netherlands, Rolf de Heer has an impressive catalogue of Aboriginal stories to his credit. In the Outback drama The Tracker (2002), the title character, played by David Gulpilil, leads three white men on the hunt for an Aboriginal killer. Ten Canoes (2006), a mesmerising documentary fantasia set in pre-European times, was the first movie filmed in Australian Aboriginal languages (Gulpilil narrated).

Now that best-known of Aboriginal actors (15 features starting with 1971's Walkabout) is taking the title role in Charlie's Country, a beautiful and quietly angry portrait of a man caught between two worlds, which is doubtless partly autobiographical (Gulpilil co-wrote).

De Heer, who is town this weekend to introduce his film, and as one of the judges in the short-film competition at the Auckland Film Festival, says his interest in Aboriginal stories started long before the word "reconciliation" had entered public discourse in Australia.

De Heer: I was commissioned to write a script for a first-contact story. It never got made but I spent time in an aboriginal community in North Queensland, which was something of a wake-up call too. After that, I did a lot of reading and I found a history that I didn't know existed. It made me angry that this had all been buried.

The idea for the film that became Tracker came to me because all this stuff had been roiling around in my head.

When I cast David, I had dinner with him and I thought, "F***, I can't work with this bloke. I have culturally nothing in common with him. I don't know what to say to him. I can barely understand him." But he invited me out to his traditional land [Ramingining, 560km east of Darwin]. And that is really where it all started, at this extreme, remote place. I have been to a lot of countries in my time and it was the most foreign country that I'd ever been to.

Director Rolf de Heer.

Was that the beginning of Ten Canoes?

Yes. After Tracker David was always saying come and make a film on my land. And I knew what kind of film I would like to make -- you'd make it on his land and he'd co-direct it and with his people and in their language. And once it was in my head, of course, I couldn't get it out.

Charlie's Country started after a conversation with David, who was in jail after having been convicted of alcohol-related domestic violence.

Yes. I went to see him in jail and he said when he was getting out that he wanted to make a film with me. So it came about as a result of my relationship with him.

There is often a debate here about whether it is legitimate for pakeha filmmakers to tell Maori stories. Has that been an issue in your work?

It exists, and I have thought about it a great deal. But Tracker was as much a white story as a black story. I was asked to come and do Ten Canoes by David and his community. I gave them editorial control and it was a question of me trying to make the film that they wanted. I was the means by which they made the film; I wouldn't have done the project unless that had been the case.

So they were happy that a whitefella was telling a blackfella's story.

The people at Ramingining would never have made [the accusation that I was appropriating their story]. In the wider Aboriginal community, particularly among academics, David is considered ... a mixed bag as to whether he talks for his people. But the Ramingining people are not the desert people; they are two different mobs entirely.

View the trailer here:

The film employs a very patient visual style -- long takes, in which the camera is stationary and people move in and out of the frame.

That's always how I approach shooting. I risk the diversity of the choice you get from many takes to go for quality. Aboriginal actors who are inexperienced work better when you give them space in the frame so you don't have to rehearse. They are almost always at their best on the first take. The other thing is the way time works for them. The pace of life is different and you want to bring that into the film in some way.

The film treads a line between comedy and tragedy and you settled on an ending that had some sense of uplift. Did you wrestle with the danger of offering the viewer an easy out?

Yes, I did, a lot. But the last shot [a sustained shot of David's face] tempers the ending quite significantly. It challenges you to ask how much has really changed.

Who: Director Rolf de Heer
What: Charlie's Country in the New Zealand International Film Festival
When and where: Screening tomorrow (with De Heer introducing) at SkyCity Theatre, 1pm. Also screening at Rialto Newmarket, Thursday 4.30pm; Fri 6.45pm

- TimeOut

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