Interview With Writer/Director Rolf de Heer

Credits include Charlie’s Country; Ten Canoes; The Tracker; and Bad Boy Bubby

It is a surprise, and no less so for Rolf de Heer himself, that he has made another film with David Gulpilil. The filmmaker and the Indigenous performer have now collaborated for a third time, which naturally leads to talk of a trilogy. An ‘accidental trilogy’ at best, if it is one at all, observes de Heer whose restless creative energies have led to his reputation in the media as a bit of a maverick, an esteemed but elusive auteur with a body of work that is tricky to define.

The three films that carry Indigenous stories have each emerged from a different time and space. The Tracker (2002) came into being after de Heer read about the brutal hidden history of the Australian frontier. Ten Canoes (2006) came about when he saw the possibilities of making a film in-language in and in-country with the Ramingining community in Arnhem Land. Charlie’s Country has come about ‘because David was in gaol’.

The news that Gulpilil had been sent to prison for a drunken episode of domestic violence was distressing yet also something of a relief: ‘Towards the end of 2011 I learnt that David was in gaol. My first thought was tragedy averted. Whatever the rights or wrongs of his imprisonment, whatever the reason, I was grateful for it because it probably saved David’s life.’
The circumstances of each film is vastly different and it can be argued that there isn’t a clear connection between the films, were it not for the towering presence of David Gulpilil. Even though he did not appear as planned in Ten Canoes, the unmistakable voice of his mischievous narrator guides us through in voiceover.

It was one of those intense bright Canberra winter mornings when I met de Heer for our interview. It is at least the 30th occasion that we have talked, mostly over the phone, about his work. He had been in Canberra to introduce Charlie’s Country at a screening at Parliament House. It was very well received.

So why had he made this new film with Gulpilil? ‘The exercise was to make a film that helps him find his way but that also gives him a chance to get on with what he wants to do. And a film that would really celebrate, probably for the first time, his extraordinary talent because it’s not yet been seen to best effect, not even in The Tracker.’

Gulpilil did not to wish to accompany de Heer to the Cannes film festival for the screening of Charlie’s Country in official selection in May. Where is the actor now? Back in his traditional lands and so far away from the red carpet that it took five days for de Heer to reach him by phone to tell him he’d won Best Actor in Un Certain Regard.

Charlie’s Country is the fourth film of de Heer’s to screen in the official selection at Cannes. The Quiet Room (1996) and Dance Me to My Song (1998) were screened in competition, while Ten Canoes won the special jury prize in Un Certain Regard in 2006.

The internationally-recognised Indigenous actor has long been held in great affection with the Australian public. He first appeared in a haunting role in Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout at the dawn of the revival of the local film industry, has received many accolades particularly in recent times, and was the subject of a prize winning portrait. Yet Gulpilil has long had trouble with substance abuse and alcohol, to which he had been introduced by certain hell-raiser actors from day one. De Heer has for some years been concerned for his friend, and written articles about how he perceives his predicament, caught between cultures and comfortable in neither.

Gulpilil was instrumental in persuading de Heer to at least consider making a film in his homelands, it was not possible to follow through. ‘David had left his community of Ramingining in 2004, because of a tribal dispute I was never quite allowed to know the details of. From that time on, David lived largely in the long grass in Darwin’. They saw less and less of each other. From time to time there was news of his friend: ‘None of it sounded very good’.

For Charlie’s Country, de Heer determined that Gulpilil had to be front and centre, and dominate the screen. He would anyway: ‘It was something I was sort of aware from the beginning: just put the camera on David, and it works’. The strength of Gulpilil’s presence was the starting point, ‘a long, unwavering close-up’ of the actor, taking in the dignity and grace of his bearing and close-ups of the face that conveys so much, wordlessly. Even after the prison barber has had his way with Gulpilil, shaving off his wild greying locks and beard, transforming him into a prison inmate, the well-loved face radiates presence.

When de Heer first met Gulpilil he recalls that his reaction was ‘F**k, I have to direct this bloke!’ He didn’t know quite what to say to him, and felt there was nothing he could say. But that was 14 years ago, when Gulpilil was cast to appear in The Tracker.

So, does the fact that you continue to work together mean that you get on very well? Something I have discovered over the years while researching my book on de Heer’s work is that he remains unpredictable: ‘No, we don’t get on very well,’ he returns. ‘It’s hard work being with David. I love him, he loves me, but it’s hard work being with him. It’s the cultural gulf, it’s David’s mercurial character…’ Of course there are things they share. ‘No doubt about that’.

Prior to the shoot for The Tracker, the two went bush together in Gulpilil’s homelands, and spent a few days camping out, hunting, fishing and talking. In very different circumstances, they went bush again before Charlie’s Country, visits that proved ‘powerfully restorative’ for Gulpilil.

Charlie’s Country was shot by Ian Jones, the cinematographer who worked with de Heer on both The Tracker and Ten Canoes, and the rest of the crew is largely the regular group of compatible co-creatives. Peter Djiggir, who co-directed Ten Canoes, co-produces and performs again and some members of the Ramingining community are also represented.

The cast has a teasing hint of familiarity about it, with many actors returning from past de Heer films, even in bit parts. There is an appearance by Gary Sweet the infamous ‘fanatic’ character in The Tracker, selling alcohol—over the counter, one should quickly add, Damon Gameau who was the ‘follower’ in the same film is seen side-on as a hospital nurse. Jamie Gulpilil who was the lead in Ten Canoes appears briefly as a trainee constable. Like many auteurs, de Heer has built a singular cinema that maps a country all its own.

It is a guessing game wondering with de Heer. What will he do next? Ten Canoes was preceded by a drama about marriage breakdown, followed by a black and white silent comedy, which was followed by a surprising comedic foray into feuding neighbours. Is there something down the track for de Heer and Gulpilil? ‘In the phone calls we have, once every two days or so, he still talks about other projects. He’s got a number of them.’ Time will tell, and all bets are off.

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