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Charlie’s Country

David Gulpilil has been around Hollywood movies for a long time.  He’s the actor most often called when productions need an Australian aborigine (really, it’s kind of depressing how often on his IMDB page he’s just credited as “Aborigine”), and you’ve probably seen him in movies like “Crocodile Dundee,” “Rabbit-Proof Fence,” “Australia,” or “Walkabout.”  He has one of those faces you’ll recognize, even if you don’t recognize his name. It’s easy to see why he keeps getting cast; he has a laconic humor about him, a way in front of the camera that is both mysterious, sad, world-wise and slyly funny. But I doubt he’s ever been in a movie like “Charlie’s Country.”

This film moves Gulpilil from the sidekick/local color role into the leading role, and focuses on what it’s like to be indigenous in Australia today. Gilpilil co-wrote the script – he would throw out suggestions and director Rolf de Heer would shape them into a cinematic narrative —  so you can trust that the film hews close to Gulpilil’s lived experience. It’s an episodic, leisurely paced film with plenty of laughs, but also a strong dose of heartbreak.

There are plenty of movies about active, hateful racism, but this one is about passive, complacent, systemic racism, of the kind where those in power probably aren’t aware the degree to which they’re making it hard for those without power to succeed and survive. The irony of the title is that Charlie is the only one who seems to remember that this is his country.  “You didn’t find me in the bush,” he tells a whitefella.  “I was born there.”  And most of the time, when he gets in trouble, it’s for doing something his ancestors have done since time began – like making spears or hunting water buffalo.

A lot of “Charlie’s Country” is depressing, as Charlie first attempts to return to the bush, only to realize he doesn’t have the skills of his ancestors, then falls in with a group of aboriginals who spend their time getting drunk and high, and eventually ends up in prison for a short time.  But there’s a ragged optimism to the film as well, as if it’s reminding us that, though things get tough, indigenous people are tough and don’t give in easily.  Charlie has weathered plenty from the whitefellas, and he’s not going anywhere. They may run things, but it’s still Charlie’s country.

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Posted in All Reviews, by Will Krischke, Native & Indigenous Cinema.

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