Introductory remarks: on Rolf de Heer’s The Tracker

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My introduction to Rolf de Heer’s The Tracker that screened as part of a special program at the National Film and Sound Archive during Reconciliation Week in Canberra, 28 May 2015

It is a very great pleasure to introduce The Tracker during Reconciliation Week 2015. It is powerful and polemical film.

Whether you are watching The Tracker for the first time or have seen it before, I think it will appear as vibrant and urgent as it seemed on release in 2002.

For a start, the visuals are beautiful. The Tracker captures the desert mauves, the purples and ochres and pitiless bright blue sky of our interior landscapes. The ‘look’ of thrusting granite ranges, twisted scrub and majestic white-trunked ghost gums recalls (intentionally, I understand) the watercolours of the Central Australian desert painted by Albert Namatjira in the 1930s.

The ballad soundtrack is haunting. And the presence of David Gulpilil is, as always, immensely compelling.

Let’s not overlook the fact that there are some moments when The Tracker is also funny, in a dark, ascerbic kind of way. Gallows humour seems absolutely apposite.

It came about in response to reading about the violence perpetrated against Indigenous people on Australia’s frontier, the intersection between Aboriginals and white settlers. In the early 1990s it was not widely known. Rolf will fill you in on the details, however his reading on ‘the frontier’, I believe the writing of historian Henry Reynolds, was a revelation that angered him deeply. So much so that it drove him to craft a blistering treatment in less than a day: ‘Twelve pages. Double spaced.’ Though it was subsequently set aside.

Around a decade later the Adelaide Festival of Arts approached him with a request for a socially conscious film preferably with a strong Indigenous theme for its Shedding Light program. The rest is history.

The Tracker portrays events that took place less than a hundred years ago, within the lifetime of some Australians still living. It was the first film to deal directly with massacres of Aboriginal peoples by white settlers in Australia. I see it was in a sense a protest, that an aspect of our history had been hidden, and a conscious bit of activism. And I think the film retains its original campaigning zeal.

In the Australian industry, films that constitute such a strong challenge to mainstream thinking are rare. In my view, Rolf tells powerful stories with unconventional protagonists who interrogate the status quo. Filmgoers are generally not allowed to sit on the fence. In The Tracker, the mainstream is in my view represented by the taciturn, amiable presence of the Veteran (Grant Page). A fence-sitter if ever there was one, despatched nonetheless.

That said, Rolf’s powerful narrative cinema, frequently accompanied by a social critique, simultaneously argues that we recognise the marginalised in our society and offers an inclusive social vision as it does so.

Stepping back to the 1970s for a moment, when the local film industry was revived, there were in amongst everything else going on two defining Indigenous themed films.

Nick Roeg’s Walkabout (1971), the film in which Gulpilil first appeared on screen, and Fred Schepisi’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), in which a young Aboriginal man, no longer able to tolerate the abuse of his white employers and family, snaps violently and turns outlaw. The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, though based on the writing of Thomas Keneally and also fact-based, was harshly criticised for its graphic violence at the time.

The Tracker on release did not find favour with everyone. Rolf has run the gauntlet for it, even been spat at, but he was also hugged! Although violence is out of frame, and it is located in time six years prior to the Coniston Massacre, The Tracker still appears as a challenge for us today.

Happily, it was made at a more propitious moment than the earlier films. Public consciousness had somewhat altered from when Rolf wrote his treatment and put it away in a drawer.

By the time the shoot for The Tracker finally began in early 2001, the Australian community had had more exposure to some of the more intractable issues of our colonial history with events such as the Mabo decision (1992), and the Bringing Them Home report (1994).
Also National Sorry Day in 1998, the Sydney Olympics, and the national Walk for Reconciliation in 2000.

A clustering of films about Indigenous-settler relations came out around then too: One Night the Moon (Rachel Perkins), Yolngu Boy (Stephen Johnson), Beneath Clouds (Ivan Sen), Black and White (Craig Lahiff). Like Phillip Noyce’s $6 million Rabbit-Proof Fence (made with a budget that was three times its size), The Tracker was also a bold and timely recognition of the stolen generations, and of our collective hidden history. Gulpilil was of course in both films, in the role of tracker.

It is astonishing to realise that Aboriginal trackers have had a place in Australian cinema since the beginning. Even more astonishing to realise how it was done. They were often played by white actors in ‘blackface’, and it my understanding that this practice continued to as late as the 1960s (e.g. James Trainor’s Journey Out of Darkness).

A striking and highly successful feature of The Tracker is the integration of still images into the narrative flow. Instead of shrinking from the violence, we stand in silent witness to the horror and reflect on what has passed. These are paintings by artist Peter Coad, 14 in all. They commence, advance and close the narrative with one last slow dissolve.

The artwork Rolf commissioned solved problems, including a resistance to portraying violence on screen. It was also an inventive solution to financial constraint. The paintings have since moved beyond solving practical issues to occupying an integral role in the film’s aesthetic system.

They are a great example of bricolage. Of bricolage that’s not about tinkering or ‘making do’ with what’s at hand, but about refusing to accept limitations and forging a new creative opportunity.

(Like all those originating ideas of Rolf’s – out of date filmstock (Dr Plonk); cheap video (Alexandra’s Project); 31 or so casual cinematographers (Bad Boy Bubby); non-actors (The Quiet Room); moving house (The King is Dead!) – that, while eventually modified, propel his films into existence.)

Over the years, the limitations of budget – and some self-imposed challenges – have consistently extracted inventive and resourceful solutions from Rolf’s practice and rejuvenated his authorial signature. It is a distinctive aspect of his work.

We can count on Rolf to deliver a strong narrative with an intriguing central character – think Bad Boy Bubby, Dance Me To My Song, The Quiet Room, Alexandra’s Project, Charlie’s Country. In my view, these narratives frequently overturn the traditional Hollywood narrative that have re-established consensus and order, with a questing outsider whose vision for a different, better kind of world prevails.

Gulpilil’s character is an enigma, an agent provocateur, a clown, a leader in waiting. He becomes a towering figure of authority, as white settler ignorance grows and as their legitimacy diminishes.

By films end, an intense interpersonal struggle is resolved in a reversal of roles in his favour – and justice is delivered.

In its demands for honesty in the historical account of what happened on the frontier, this boldly polemical film was made to persuade Australia to take responsibility for its past. It is dominated by one of the most intriguing and charismatic lead characters in Australian cinema, and played out against the magnificent Australian wilderness. It was a bold beginning to what has become an ‘accidental trilogy’ of great significance. That has evolved out of the personal and professional relationship between David Gulpilil and Rolf de Heer.

In time this unique trilogy is likely to be recognised for its cultural significance.

Although it has been somewhat overshadowed by Ten Canoes, The Tracker won multiple awards including a clean sweep at the AFI, IF and FCCA awards for best Australian feature film in 2002. It won the SIGNIS award at Venice film festival and was also nominated for the Golden Lion, the Press Award at the Paris film festival (a tie with La Fleuve) and the Special Jury Prize at the Vallodolid International film festival. Critic and academic Adrian Martin, a contributor to the BFI’s prestigious Sight and Sound magazine declared it the best Australian film of the decade 2000-2010.

Without a doubt, it’s one of the best films by an unorthodox, bold and unpredictable filmmaker.