Charlie (David Gulpilil) is an Aborigine in Australia, and laments this makes him and his countrymen feel like second class ctiizens since the whites, from his point of view at least, do everything in their power to ensure that he is always restricted in his choices to the point of living a thwarted life. He lives in a native community, one set up by the whites to keep groups of Aborigines together under the impression that they have their own land to live on, but in effect this means they are patrolled strictly by white policemen who treat the place like a totalitarian state, clamping down on anything from drinking to hunting to even self expression. Charlie is resentful about this, yet cannot think of a solution...
David Gulpilil is the most famous native actor to emerge from Australia, having received his start in the industry when he was chosen to star with Jenny Agutter in Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout back in the early nineteen-seventies. But it wasn't all plain sailing from then on, as in spite of working regularly in acting roles, including one of the most successful Australian movies of all time in Crocodile Dundee, come the twenty-first century his demons caught up with him and he found himself both an alcoholic and in prison. Fortunately, there were those who refused to give up on him, and one of those was director Rolf de Heer, the Dutch/Australian moviemaker who was taking an interest in indigenous culture.
De Heer visited Gulpilil in jail and they worked out a movie for him to star in: Charlie's Country, based in his experiences, was the result and cheeringly it secured the actor the leading male performance award at Cannes in 2014 in the Un Certain Regard category. This was richly deserved in the eyes of many of those who saw the work, as it really was Gulpilil's film, he was in just about every scene and his direct, unpretentious quality not only made him captivating to watch, but tugged at the heartstrings when Charlie's life simply fails to play out in the manner he desperately wishes it to: a breakdown scene cracking his stoic exterior is undeniably powerful. With this actor also scripting, the issues facing his people rarely seemed more vivid and alive - and tragically sad - when he was both highlighting them and acting them out.
Acutely aware that many believe the Aborigines have taken the path of least resistance in their communities by doing the barest minimum to get by, and more often than not falling prey to alcohol addiction in the process, this didn't shy away from the accusations that they were nothing more than lazy and unwilling to drag themselves out of the mire of their own indolence. What it did was to make us understand, through Charlie's day to day existence, that the whole race had been knocked out of whack by their dominance by the whites: Charlie takes every opportunity to remind these folks he still regards as invaders that they brought a whole bunch of rules and dependencies to his land, as well as taking that land away, which have effectively ruined the chances of not only him, but all his fellow Aborigines, for keeping in touch with the old ways.
This is important since back before the white Australians showed up, the natives were masters of all they surveyed, self-contained and self-sufficient in their traditions and way of life, and Charlie pines for those days of which he has some (recent) memory, though the film makes it clear those days have gone and moving forward is the only way out of his predicament. When he decides to go back to nature and eke out his days fishing and hunting in the bush to get by, it's a case of his romanticism getting the better of him as he has become too domesticated, even in that shack he calls home, to survive. After ending up in hospital, he is ever more depressed and the lure of the demon drink is too much to deny, but just as you think you are watching a very slow suicide - jail also features - Gulpilil and de Heer managed to pull off a note of optimism, pointing out that because the Aborigines are living in a modern, white world it doesn't mean they need to forget the pride in their ancestors' traditions. Though the picture they paint is bleak and predictable, it's nice to see someone refusing to give in. Music by Graham Tardif.