Charlie's Country

Charlie's Country ★★★★

Charlie's Country opens with a static mid shot of it's eponymous everyman, played by Australian legend David Gulpilil. Charlie survey's his home, taking in the corrugated iron walls, the stained mattress on makeshift struts, the campfire's smoke. We survey Gulpilil's face, his map of creases, framed by greying ringlets, worn-in by a life lived on his land. His face, more than any other working within Australia, is able to tell a story by its presence alone; it doesn't need words.

It is no casting director's coup that Gulpilil's well-worn features match so perfectly with Charlie's own. Charlie's story has been drawn from Gulpilil's, which despite the actor's renown is not an uncommon one for Aboriginal men in remote communities: poor health, alcohol abuse, incarceration, disillusionment and distrust. The character, created in collaboration with director Rolf de Heer, is an incisive summation of a life lived between two worlds, one which pins the still-present colonial mindset to the ground and strips it bare for all to see.

None of this is news. In fact, de Heer and Gulpilil's efforts here are successful because they treat Charlie's world with such world-wearied pragmatism. Their screenplay doesn't hold too tightly to Western narrative convention, nor should it given its non-assimilationist theming. Instead, taking the lead from traditional storytelling, things just happen, and happen, and happen. Charlie's Country is episodic, repeatedly returning to Charlie's almost inconsequential battles, repeatedly rubbing ash into familiar wounds. The beauty of Gulpilil and de Heer's film is that they manage to condense the immensity of a life of relentless oppression into an approachable, straightforward, contained scenario, and that they do so with such generosity of spirit.

Guliplil is central to Charlie's Country's magnanimous soul. His endearingly persuasive performance, which works its way under the skin through its irrepressible blackfella humour, contextualises the plight of Aboriginal people living under the Australian government's "intervention". Gulpilil's performance eschews overt conflict, relying instead on Charlie's resigned acceptance of the inevitability of his subjugation. Gulpilil lets Charlie good-heartedly simmer away until the oppression pops his lid. It's a completely believable slide into open rebellion, and one which realistically explores the swamping of Aboriginal culture without having to simplify down to cinema's fallback "black versus white" tropes.

Australia has long struggled to articulate its long, muddied and complicated history with its First Peoples. To the credit of everyone involved, Charlie's Country encapsulates the long-lived and still-in-force pressure for cultural assimilation in a story so simple that will be difficult for even the most entrenched cultural biggots to misunderstand. In a week when our prime minister (and minister for Indigenous affairs) disgustingly managed to reassert the outmoded view of terra nullius, to a group of businessmen no less, this sort of plain talking is nourishing, It is just such a shame that it is in such dishearteningly short supply.