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Introductory remarks: on Rolf de Heer’s The Tracker

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.

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.