#AceNewsReport – Dec.06: De Heer directed Gulpilil in his award-winning role in the film Charlie’s Country. It ostensibly mirrored the actor’s life: a man struggling to hold onto his culture; his soul. Since a boy, Gulpilil had lived in two worlds.
#AceDailyNews Tribute Report: The film director Rolf de Heer, reflecting on his friend and collaborator, David Gulpilil Ridjimiraril Dalaithngu, said the actor struggled between Indigenous and non-Indigenous worlds and he does. The Aboriginal boy opens a world foreign and mystical. Where there is dust he finds water. Where there is hunger he provides food. The children grow close yet their worlds never quite touch.David Dalaithngu walked tall in two culturesHis career spanned nearly 50 years and took Indigenous Australia to the world, but now actor David Dalaithngu AM has died.
WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this article contains an image of a person who has died: The late actor’s family has granted permission to use his name and image.
“He’ll say he can live in both cultures”, de Heer said, “but I don’t think he does well in either.”
Gulpilil’s trials and personal issues are well documented but they did not stop him also creating among the most profound, enduring, and influential bodies of work in Australian culture.
After Gulpilil’s passing this week, much of the obituaries have centred on this apparently irreconcilable gulf: a man-in-between, a symbol of a nation’s divided soul.
It was there from his film debut in Nicolas Roeg’s masterpiece, Walkabout. It told the story of two white children lost in the wilderness who encounter an Aboriginal boy. David Gumpilil (as he was erroneously named in the film credits) even as a raw teenager is a magnetic, charismatic presence.
It is a spare, elegiac film. Minimal dialogue. Harsh yet beautiful. Knowing yet innocent. It is also deeply troubling. It tells the eternal story of humanity’s fall. It is Rousseauian: man is born free yet everywhere he is in chains.
To Roeg, it is this world that enslaves us. Our cities and our jobs and our families and our communities. Only in the state of nature can we rediscover our true selves.
Tragedy and violence has upended the lives of the two white children, yet it promises also to set them free.
When they encounter the young Gulpilil’s character, the white girl says: “I suspect we are the first white people he’s seen.”
The boy wonders: “I think he’s going to take us to Mars.”
Walkabout belongs to those Australian films and books that deal with what Freud called the uncanny: where home becomes strange. Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock, Ted Kotcheff’s Wake in Fright and novels like Randolph Stow’s Tourmaline. The paintings of Russell Drysdale pondered our place in this land, what he called “this other space in the Australian memory”.
These are the places where Australians disappear. We enter terra nullius: a place stolen and unsettled. Elizabeth Tilley in her book White Vanishing calls this the “disruptive, disturbing, chaotic, space”.
We don’t find salvation or deliverance there — black or white. Walkabout ends in death and alienation. The Aboriginal boy glimpses destruction and violence. He sees a future of which he could never be a part.
Half a century on
Gulpilil would play many more roles. Powerful unforgettable roles in films like Tracker and Rabbit Proof Fence, Fingerbone Bill in Storm Boy and his ironic funny turn as Neville Bell in Crocodile Dundee. But in so many ways he remained always the boy in Walkabout.
He is doomed like everyone in the film. It is a meditation on nothingness and nihilism. Roeg is deeply indebted to the continental philosophy of the likes of Martin Heidegger. It gave us the modern notion of identity: alienation, loss, trauma.
It is a bleak vision and it casts a pall over a modern age stripped of inherent meaning. It has been called a therapeutic age of suffering and victimhood that frames a debilitating contest for recognition. This view of the world does not allow us to see ourselves in each other but as estranged.David Dalaithngu’s major Australian film rolesAward-winning actor David Dalaithngu has been remembered for his 50-year career, starring in many iconic Australian films. Here, we look at some of his major roles.Read more
As in Walkabout, the things that once bound us — faith, family, tradition, culture, community — now apparently oppress us, even destroy us. Roeg’s film is 50 years old but it resonates today. If anything the modern malaise he laid bare has only deepened.
As in Walkabout, it is like we are from Mars.
In Walkabout, the girl returns to the numbing monotony of modernity perpetuating the same cycle of emptiness and despair that stripped the souls of her mother and father before her.
Gulpilil’s boy has no place in that world as his own world is lost.
Two Australian stories
On screen, Gulpilil lived and died in that vanishing place.
Those who have written about him this week have kept him there. He is whatever we want to see. Indigenous writers have spoken of pride, culture, resilience but also, loss. For others, he is magical, mystical, spiritual, a talented actor from another world.
His passing reminds us that we have still not healed the great wound of Australia. There remain two stories here, not yet one.
Yet these eulogies are an unbearable burden to put on one person. We project the weight of a nation’s history onto him. Gulpilil was complex, contradictory, gifted, flawed and failed like us all.
Did he, as Rolf de Heer said, find it impossible to straddle two worlds? If that’s how we wish to see him, I suppose we could say that.
If that’s how we want to see him, he can always be doomed. Tragic. That horrible distorted modern vision of identity and history.
Or he can be the man who brought us joy and life and art. Whose eyes seemed to stare right through us. The man the camera found irresistible.
I have thought of another artist on whom others place an impossible weight even many years after his death, the writer James Baldwin. Baldwin spoke against cynicism and nihilism, so fashionable today, and instead found new ways to create hope every day.
Not for him the notion of being caught between worlds, but being alive to the world — beyond anyone else’s idea of who we should be. As he wrote:
“Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death — ought to decide, indeed, to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life.”
Baldwin never met Gulpilil, yet that captures better than anything else I have read this week the glorious life and death of our greatest actor.
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