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Film Review – Charlie’s Country

3 min read

It begins with the implementation of laws, commands reinforced by signs that read ‘NO ENTRY’, ‘WARNING’ or ‘NO ALCOHOL BEYOND THIS POINT.’ These laws are “whitefella” laws and their clash with traditional Indigenous culture is beginning to make Charlie (David Gulpilil) feel like a stranger in his land, Arnhem Land.

When police officer Luke (Luke Ford) confiscates a hunting spear that Charlie has fashioned for himself, Charlie decides to head into the bush to live life the traditional way. During this depiction of life in the bush, the contrast between life for the Indigenous people of Australia prior to white settlement and after white settlement becomes hauntingly stark. The audience witness Charlie hunting for fish and traditionally cooking it in the coals of a fire. This moist, fresh fish contrasts drastically to the close-up of the stale, fried food seen earlier in the film in the local fish and chip shop. The widescreen shots, styled by cinematographer Ian Jones, submerge the audience in the serenity of the Australian outback and life in the bush seems like paradise. That is until a heavy rain makes Charlie sick and forces him to go to Darwin to be hospitalised with a lung infection.

Charlies Country Insert

While in Darwin he joins a group of homeless Aboriginals who drink and smoke weed constantly. A run-in with the police leads to Charlie’s incarceration and at this moment we witness perhaps the most poignant scene of the film, a close-up real time shot of Charlie’s head and beard being shaved by a fellow prisoner. As his hair falls about his shoulders in curly clumps, his bloodshot eyes stare sadly at the camera and his face becomes almost unrecognisable. His sense of self and belonging are completely stripped from him and he becomes a faceless prisoner cast into the routine of the prison system.

Rolf de Heer has crafted a film that is painstakingly honest. He’s employed the use of close-up shots that linger for almost uncomfortable amounts of time on Charlie’s face, his brow furrowed in frustration and confusion as he attempts to come to terms with what has happened to his land. His contemplation forces us to think about the consequences of Australia’s dark history and question our own contribution. Yet while this film is a war cry for Aboriginal people across the nation, Rolf de Heer and cowriter David Gulpilil have chosen not to shy away from issues that plague many Indigenous communities, such as alcohol and drug dependency. Instead they portray these problems honestly and with humility. The naivety of many white Australians is also handled gently with lines that are almost comical, such as when a doctor asks Charlie “can I call you Charlie? I’m not very good with foreign names.”

The success of de Heer’s film lies in its ability to tackle Australia’s tangled history without abrasively pointing the finger and calling out who’s to blame. Charlie’s Country is a highly personal tale that explores life as a “blackfella” struggling to exist between two conflicting cultures in a country that is still licking its wounds and yet to fully understand its cultural identity.

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