Opening last Friday at Lincoln Plaza Cinema in NY, “Charlie’s Country” is now the fourth film I have seen that stars Australian aboriginal actor David Gulpilil who I first saw in “Walkabout” back in 1971 when he was 18 years old. Now 65 he is just as capable of conveying the psychological depth of an indigenous person as he ever was, in this case more essentially since he is the co-author of the screenplay.
Directed by Nicolas Roeg, “Walkabout” depicted the complex interaction of a young white brother and sister stranded in the outback with an aborigine out on a rite of puberty testing his ability to survive in the wilderness. As a perfect complement to his first film, the latest shows him returning once again to the bush but more as someone in the twilight of his life in a search of a more meaningful existence but one that has been destroyed by the white Australian colonizer.
Charlie lives in a native settlement that has all the same problems as an Indian reservation in the USA: drugs, alcohol, unemployment and despair. In the beginning of the week, Charlie gets a public assistance check and then spends it before the week is up. His days are spent wandering about his village aimlessly or shooting the breeze with other village elders.
In a manner that will remind you of Ferguson, Missouri or any other city where poor Black people are policed by white cops in an oppressive fashion, the local cops–all white Australians–treat their subjects with a mixture of paternalism and brutality. After Charlie and a crony go out into the bush to hunt a buffalo, they are stopped by the cops on the way back to the village and have their car, guns and game seized for lack of a proper license. A few days later, Charlie decides that he will have the last word on hunting and fashions a spear in a manner that has been handed down for generations among aboriginal people for millennia. On his way back to the bush for another hunt, the cops apprehend him and seize his spear because it is a “weapon”. I could not help but be reminded of the Baltimore cops chasing after Freddie Gray for carrying a concealed pocketknife.
Throughout the film, Charlie longs for nothing more than a return to traditional life, which the script makes clear is unattainable. This is the tragedy not only of Charlie but an entire race of people who were victims of genocide. As someone who has paid close attention to the anomie and suffering of Blackfoot Indians both through my research and by what I saw in visits to reservations in Montana and Alberta, I was struck by the similarities. When the game wardens arrest Charlie for hunting on land that belonged to his people for ten thousand years, I remembered that the same thing happened here:
By 1935, relations between the Blackfeet and the National Park Service had reached an impasse that remains in place to this day. On one side, the park service, tourists, preservationists largely made Glacier into the uninhabited wilderness that continues to inform potent ideas about nature and national identity. Blackfeet use of park undermined this idealized notion of wilderness and the tribe’s resistance to Glacier’s eastward expansion limited its physical expression. Tension between Indians and the park service subsided over the next few decades, but the issue of Blackfeet in the eastern half of Glacier never disappeared.
By the 1960s, few Blackfeet actually hunted near the park, and fewer still went to the mountains to gather traditional plant foods and medicines. But the continuing importance of the Backbone of the World never depended on how many people went to the mountains. Although the Glacier region provided the tribe with a large portion of its physical sustenance in the 1890s, the issue of Blackfeet rights in the area always reflected concerns about cultural persistence and tribal sovereignty.
Like the American Indian, Australian aboriginals are facing a daunting task of trying to recapture a hunting and gathering ethos when capitalism has virtually destroyed such a possibility. Ironically, it is exactly a return to a precapitalist ecosocialist balance that will make the survival of both “advanced” societies.
“Rabbit-Proof Fence” depicts the flight of two young girls from a residential school that was intended to forcibly assimilate native children in the same way that took place in the USA and Canada as I indicated in my review:
Since Molly (Everlyn Sampi), who is 14 at the time of the movie, her 8-year-old sister Daisy (Tianna Sansbury), and their 10-year-old cousin Gracie (Laura Monaghan) are all “mixed breed” children, they fall under the jurisdiction of the Aboriginal Protection Act, which more properly should have been called the Aboriginal Genocide Act.
Since one of the goals of the legislation was to place such children in residential schools where “primitiveness”, including their native language, will be indoctrinated (or beaten) out of them, it would certainly qualify as genocide in terms of the United Nations. Article II of the UN Convention on Genocide stipulates that “Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group” for the purposes of assimilation qualifies as genocide. Despite the paternalistic language of the Australian drafters of this legislation, they had much more in common with Heinrich Himmler who stated: “I consider that in dealing with members of a foreign country, especially some Slav nationality…in such a mixture of peoples there will always be some racially good types. Therefore I think that it is our duty to take their children with us, to remove them from their environment, if necessary, by robbing or stealing them…” (Telford Taylor, “Anatomy of the Nuremberg Trials”, p. 203. This was cited by James Michael Craven in an indictment of residential schools in Canada.)
In one particularly chilling scene, A.O. Neville, the Australian in charge of removing such children from their parents and played to perfection in an understated fashion by Kenneth Branagh, lectures a group of genteel white women about the goals of the policy. Pointing to three large pictures of Aboriginal children on the wall–a full-breed, a half-breed and a quarter-breed–he explains coolly that in another generation all the “blackness” will have been bred out of them. At the residential schools, not only would they learn proper English. They would be taught useful skills, such as how to clean the houses of their white Australian masters and care for their children.
By contrast, “Ten Canoes” dramatizes aboriginal life prior to the arrival of the colonizers—a time of spiritual and physical well-being even if it lacked the “conveniences” of modern life. In “Charlie’s Country”, Gulpilil’s character does not bother keeping his cell phone charged because he has so little use for it. As he says through most of the film, the old ways were better—a sentiment that inspire “Ten Canoes” as well as I indicated in my review:
The story of “Ten Canoes” has a shaggy dog quality. With narration by David Gulpilil, it is far more interested in depicting the “undramatic” diurnal existence of his people. The opening scenes, for example, depict a group of Yolngu men stripping bark from trees deep within the swamp, carrying them back to their village on their heads and preparing it to be turned into canoes. As they go about their chores, they joke with each other and gossip about village life.
We soon learn that the young and unmarried Dayindi (played by Jamie Gulpilil, David’s son) lusts after the youngest of the three wives of Ridjimiraril (Crusoe Kurrdal). When village elder Birrinbirrin (played by co-producer Richard Birrinbirrin, a Yolngu artist and conservator of indigenous culture) discovers this, he spins out a long tale that amounts to a film within the film about their ancestors from 10,000 years earlier who get involved with similar conflicts over women.
The Aesopian moral of the story is that you are often better off making do with what you have. The general picture of Yolngu mores that emerges from the film is that strife is to be avoided at all costs. When one of Dayindi’s ancestors kills a man from another village in a jealous rage, the rival camps agree to a “payback”, which involves the killer dodging spears thrown by the aggrieved villagers. This “eye for an eye” ritual is understood by all Yolngus as a way of avoiding more costly wars.