Another Country is a film that takes time. As the narrator, co-writer and Australian screen star David Gulpilil notes at one point, “There’s never enough time in white fella culture.” Especially, he could have added, when it comes to understanding Indigenous people. The final chapter in the “Country suite” made collaboratively by Gulpilil, Molly Reynolds and Rolf de Heer, the new documentary Another Country challenges non-Indigenous viewers to stop, slow down, sink into the languid rhythms of life in the top end, and really listen to what Gulpilil has to say about his home – a country very different to the one most Australians live in. (1)
Another Country opens with the Gulpilil introducing himself in voiceover. He tells us he has met the Queen, hung out with Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix, and appeared in films like Storm Boy (Henri Safran, 1976) and Australia (Baz Luhrmann, 2008). He’s also been in prison more than once. He’s a living legend, he claims with a chuckle. But in Another Country he is not performing for others. He is taking us into his world, his country, and introducing us to his people – the Yolngu of Ramingining in Australia’s far north, a place often inaccessible by road during the wet season, located around 400 kilometres from the next nearest town. This is Gulpilil’s home, and it is where he often returns when he is not appearing in films or walking the red carpet at Cannes.
It is fitting that Another Country – a film in which Gulpilil does not just play a lead, but actually leads through his direct, personalised voiceover narration that he co-wrote with Reynolds and de Heer – is debuting at the Melbourne International Film Festival alongside a program showcasing his epic career. Across half a century of Australian filmmaking he has appeared in well over a dozen feature films and a range of documentaries. But for all his longevity, Gulpilil has always occupied a difficult, intermediary position in Australian cinema ever since he burst out of Nicholas Roeg’s cinematic desert as a teenager in Walkabout (1971).
Often asked to perform images of Aboriginality forged by white filmmakers with little or no connection to actual Indigenous cultures, he also sits uneasily in the nation’s pantheon of mainstream actor icons. While his contemporaries like Jack Thompson and Bryan Brown largely conform to Australians’ image of themselves – white, laidback, laconic – Gulpilil’s Aboriginality and subversive humour has always been a discomforting reminder of just how limited that image really is, and the dark history of dispossession that it elides. The destabilising unease his presence generates is evident even when he is put at the service of white ideas about black Australia, as he frequently was in films of the 1970s and 80s. The sheer force of Gulpilil’s wiry charisma and steadfast dignity, for example, subtly undermined attempts to contain his presence within the clichéd, heavily mysticised Indigenous “otherness” evoked in 70s films like Walkabout and The Last Wave (Peter Weir, 1977). As a result, even though Gulpilil has never engaged in the in-you-face rhetoric of a figure like Gary Foley (2), who emerged from a much more urban and militant milieu, his massive contribution to Australian cinema has always been cautiously acknowledged rather than unambiguously celebrated the way white icons like Thompson and Brown have been for decades. (3)
Gulpilil’s recurring role as an intermediary between black and white worlds, both on screen and in real life, has found its most fruitful expression through a series of collaborations with Molly Reynolds and Rolf de Heer over the past fifteen years. Starting with The Tracker (Rolf de Heer, 2002) and Ten Canoes (Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigirr, 2006), and continuing the with the “Country suite” of Charlie’s Country (Rolf de Heer, 2013), the experimental Still Our Country: Reflections on a Culture (Molly Reynolds, 2014) and the latest documentary Another Country, Gulpilil’s creative alliance with the pair has produced some of his best work and a counter-balance to the white-written roles of his earlier career. Their most recent partnership makes Gulpilil’s intermediary role explicit.
With its warm and personalised direct address narration, Another Country is positioned somewhere between an essay film and an expository documentary. Although the voice here is certainly represented as Gulpilil’s rather than any kind of objective “voice-of-God,” the tone is instructional rather than reflective. Unlike the complex manner in which much recent Indigenous Australian cinema addresses both Aboriginal and non- Aboriginal audiences in different ways, this film is unambiguously constructed as an address from an Aboriginal person to non-Aboriginal Australia. Gulpilil is not ruminating – he’s trying to make us understand. All we are asked to do is sit back and listen.
The images of Ramingining that play alongside Gulpilil’s verbal address range from the prosaic (people playing cards, shopping in the town’s only store) to the confronting (a kangaroo trapped by dogs and clubbed to death) to the surreal (an Easter re-enactment of Christ’s crucifixion during a tropical downpour). As the camera explores life in the town, Gulpilil gently explains some hard truths about Yolngu people’s situation.
Gulpilil recalls the problematic formation of Ramingining, created when white authorities herded various Indigenous groups into the same settlement without regard for language, land or customs. He takes us through the history of “self-determination,” which he claims has never amounted to anything but the government telling Indigenous people what to do to solve problems created by authorities in the first place. Most importantly, he outlines very clearly and simply the myriad ways in which the world views of Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians fundamentally conflict. Put simply, Gulpilil states, “Our culture doesn’t fit your culture.”
The key message here is not accusatory however. Gulpilil acknowledges Indigenous Australians cannot return to their pre-invasion culture, and that they need to find ways to live happily and productively within contemporary Australian society. But, he says, “We can’t get there if you think you know more about us than we do. You have to try and understand us. Listen to our history. Listen to us. Listen to what we say. Listen to who we are.”
It’s so simple, yet after two centuries we still remain so utterly resistant to taking this first easy step. It is sobering to think, for example, that in Gulpilil’s prominent recent role in Baz Luhrmann’s Australia – a film ostensibly about the Stolen Generations (4) – his character barely speaks, much like his first screen appearance in Walkabout nearly four decades earlier. It is no accident, then, that Another Country puts Gulpilil’s voice centre stage.
As an Australian screen star who has long had to negotiate the difficult terrain between white and black subjectivities, Gulpilil is ideally positioned to help non-Indigenous Australians listen, and perhaps begin to understand. After all, he’s hobnobbed with the Queen, so even royalists need not feel threatened. And Gulpilil has a knack for explaining things slowly, with humour, in a way that even white people can understand. In this respect, the “Country suite” may be his valuable contribution to Australian culture yet.
Another Country (directed by Molly Reynolds, as told by David Gulpilil) will debut at the Melbourne International Film Festival on Friday, 31 July and Sunday, 2 August. See www.miff.com.au for details.
1. “Country” for Indigenous Australians refers to the specific land to which they belong, rather than the kind of modern nation-state the term often refers to in English. David Gulpilil’s country is located in Arnhem Land, in the north-eastern corner of Australia’s Northern Territory.
2. Gary Foley is a prominent Australian Aboriginal activist and actor, who was part of the National Black Theatre formed in the inner-Sydney suburb of Redfern in 1972. His filmic debut was in Phillip Noyce’s Backroads (1977). He has also appeared in numerous Australian television programs such as A Country Practice and The Flying Doctors. He currently lectures at Victoria University in Melbourne.
3. This is not a criticism of Thompson or Brown themselves, both of whom have played prominent roles in promoting Indigenous actors and filmmakers throughout their careers.
4. The Stolen Generations is a term referring to Aboriginal children forcibly removed from their families by Australian government agencies and religious organisations between the early years of the twentieth century and the early 1970s, under a range of official policies and laws.