Survival Day: Reflections on Aboriginal Australia in Film

Down under, there has been a growing voice towards the basic request to change the date of Australia/Invasion/Survival Day (which happens every January 26th) so as to not associate it with the arrival of the first fleet of white supremacists to the east coast – the same white supremacists who were intent on pushing out the Indigenous population and colonising it with empirical subjects. I say ‘basic request’ because that is what it is. It is a simple action of changing something. Admirably, here on the west coast in Fremantle, a couple of forward-minded people in the city council stuck it to the pricks and just went ahead and changed the date to two days later (today) – back of the net!! Now we can get on with dealing with the more significant issues in life such as resisting the takeover of the free world by morons!

And so, after that social-political commentary, let’s gladly move on to the movies shall we? But to slightly remain on topic, I want to explore some of the aspects from the many, excellent works of cinema produced down under which concern, portray and celebrate the way of life of Aboriginal people. There is no better place to start than looking at the extraordinary filmography of probably the most famous and gifted Aboriginal actors in Australia, if not, the world – David Gulpilil.

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David Gulpilil in Satellite Boy (2012)

His collaborations with the director Rolf de Heer in the films The Tracker (2002), Ten Canoes (2006) and Charlie’s Country (2013), as well as the little gem, Satellite Boy (2012) by Catriona McKenzie, has seen a recent flaunt of the man’s considerable talents as well as showcasing a deeply ingrained connection with his ancestry and the culture of Aboriginal Australians in general.

In The Tracker, Gulpilil plays an Aboriginal man who has been manipulated into helping a trio of sadistic lawmen to track down another Aboriginal man who has fled into the outback after murdering a white woman. The film quietly explores the perpetual racism that exists within the three white men while also conveying the tortured mind of Gulpilil’s character through his intent to stay alive but simultaneously betraying his fellow Aboriginal brothers. It is a tough and intense film to watch but it is one that attempts to nail down some visual imaginings of the alleged stories of massacres and cruelty towards Aboriginal people in the 1920s and I feel this is important. The lack of on-screen brutality here is also a novel aspect – instead de Heer depicts the atrocities through art, which somehow packs an equally hard punch to the guts.

Ten Canoes offers something different, something more uplifting –  and I do not mean ‘noble savage’ propaganda (see the opening sequence above). The film is played out exclusively by Aboriginal actors speaking a variety of Aboriginal languages and it is set in the wide expanse of unspoiled, tropical beauty known as Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. No doubt, the film was a product of de Heer’s burgeoning friendship with Gulpilil, who I imagine could offer him a relatively authentic vision of life on the Australian continent prior to white invasion. Consequently, Gulpilil provides the humorous and heartfelt narration to a story framed within another story, which is based on tribal customs, economy and warfare, while his son Jamie plays the main character. It may well be a keyhole view of a vast and complex culture that extends back tens of thousands of years but with a cast who likely inherit that connection with the past, it is hard to argue against it’s authenticity. Considering how important ancestral connection is in Aboriginal culture, it is with little difficulty that one could formulate this view.

After some difficulties in his personal life, Gulpilil returned to acting in 2012 with the sweet, funny and life-affirming Satellite Boy, where he plays the sincere, bush-dwelling uncle to a young boy (Cameron Wallaby) who is adamant to get away from the backwardness of the country and go and experience life in the big lights of the city. It is a charming little film that offers an ode to the important relationship between young and old people the world over.

A year later, de Heer reconnected with Gulpilil by placing him as the lead in Charlie’s Country, which saw the actor take on a semi-autobiographical role as a middle-aged Aboriginal man struggling with modern-day structures in Darwin. Gulpilil offers an extraordinary and touching portrayal, powerfully commanding the role as his own, which it very much is, and willfully attempting, despite his considerable demons, to find a balance in his past, present and future. As Gulpilil himself once stated during an interview:

‘We are all one blood. No matter where we are from, we are all one blood, the same’

Gulpilil’s charisma flows through in all of his roles. In his breakout in Walkabout, from 1972 by Nicolas Roeg, he played a young, coming-of-age man who happens across an attractive white girl (Jenny Agutter) and her younger brother (Roeg’s son) who are lost in the outback. For all the whimsy, eroticism and aestheticism of Roeg’s direction, it is Gulpilil’s performance that provides that crucial link for the story to work – a spiritual connection and understanding to the land which allows one to survive in it. Despite a raw, naive performance in Walkabout, Gulpilil commanded more attention in other roles such as here in Storm Boy (1976, Henri Safran) or in Peter Weir’s perplexing film The Last Wave, from 1977, where he plays a young man accused of murder (something related to an apocalyptic Dreaming curse). A prominent appearance in this mainstream-aimed film prompted him to pursue a promising career in Hollywood movies, subsequently popping up in a funny scene from The Right Stuff (1983, Philip Kaufman) and of course, famously appearing in the Crocodile Dundee films. Be mindful though that the racial stereotyping in Dundee is slathered on pretty thick, as too it is in the ridiculous Tom Selleck-vehicle from 1990, Quigley Down Under, which stars the legendary Aboriginal actor, Steve Dodd.

Gulpilil’s most sinister role, however, was reserved for the significant story about the Stolen Generation in Philip Noyce’s Rabbit Proof Fence from 2002. He plays a tracker who, along with the authorities, pursue three young girls who have fled a Christian mission in Western Australia after having been taken away from their parents. It is set in the 1930s and is based on actual events which saw the three girls, two sisters (Everlyn Sampi and Tianna Sansbury) and their cousin (Laura Monaghan), travel across thousands of kilometers of land to get back home, using the rabbit-proof fence as their compass. It is a marvelous and affecting tale of perseverance and resistance in the face of cruel adversity. Unfortunately today, as I have found, many elderly Aboriginal men and women across the country have similar tales to tell about how they were taken away from their parents but not always do they end in messages of hope nor does the plight translate as an adventurous treatise as it does, at times in this film.

 

Nevertheless, a great film. As too is Samson and Delilah, directed by Warwick Thornton (himself an Aboriginal filmmaker) in 2009, not starring Gulpilil. I remember watching this prior to embarking on my migration to Australia and, like the other films I have mentioned, I remember being greatly affected by its tale of immense struggle. But even more so, I felt an overwhelming empathy towards the characters. What if I was born into that situation? – your home is a run-down shed, your parents are gone, you do not have any money to buy anything, your life has no trajectory, it has no meaning. This is still a reality today – a first world country like Australia still has places that have third world conditions. Despite this, the promise of hope in the film is enamored in the relationship between Samson (Rowan McNamara) and Delilah (Marissa Gibson) and I find the way in which Thornton weaves this together to be absolutely soul-shuddering beautiful. A fantastic, must-see film.

Speaking of the reality though, it maybe worth your while watching John Pilger’s hard-hitting documentary called Utopia, made a few years ago about the current plight of Aboriginal Australians. There is plenty that stands out here but the one thing that mostly stuck with me was the phrase ‘rack ’em and stack ’em’ uttered by a government official to describe the informal policy in which Aboriginal people are apparently managed under in prisons throughout Western Australia. It is without surprise to learn that the vast majority of prisoners in Australia are Aboriginal people, usually arrested for alcohol-related incidents. The disposition of many Aboriginal people from this modern Western society is witnessed commonly today and it is mainly due to the massive social problems that have proliferated beyond their grasp over the last few hundred years or so, and the situation has not been, and continue to not be, helped by the policies of Federal and State Governments. Many of the stories in Pilger’s documentary are moving but for the most part, they are disturbing. For example, it is worth seeing this interaction between Pilger and Australia Day revelers in Sydney:

Despite the doom and gloom view portrayed by Pilger, there is no doubt that Aboriginal culture has a place in this world, let alone in Australia. Most people I hope can agree with this affirmation. In the equally harrowing and honest documentary Exile and the Kingdom, the importance of customs and culture to the Aboriginal groups located around the north-western town of Roebourne is beautifully captured by filmmaker Frank Rijvec. The redeeming message from Rijvec’s piece, which offers insightful interviews with great characters, is that not only does the world have a natural balance that has to be maintained, it has a structure that Aboriginal people have become familiar with over time and are willing to work with it in order to sustain life for themselves, for others and for future generations.

I will attempt a profound end here with a quote from Stan Grant, the prominent Aboriginal broadcaster, who penned this in a speech he gave to City Hall in Sydney in 2015:

‘..every time we are lured into the light, we are mugged by the darkness of this country’s history…one day, I want to stand here and be able to say as proudly and sing as loudly as anyone in this room, ‘Australians all, let us rejoice.”

*title picture comes from koorihistory.com

5 thoughts on “Survival Day: Reflections on Aboriginal Australia in Film

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