Posted by Susan Doll on May 5, 2014
I first saw Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout when I was in film school. Though I did not see the film again for decades, I never forgot the stunning grandeur of the Australian Outback, which was as harsh as it was beautiful, and the melancholy tone of the narrative, which forecast the downbeat but inevitable conclusion. Most of all, I remember young David Gulpilil, who played the aboriginal boy at the center of the narrative. Throughout the years, I followed Gulpilil’s career and became an avid fan of the world’s only Aborigine movie star. This Friday, as part of the Friday Night Spotlight on Australian Cinema, TCM will air two films featuring Gulpilil, Walkabout and Peter Weir’s The Last Wave.
Roeg saw David Gulpilil when he was scouting locations in Maningrida. An indigenous community, Maningrida is located in the Arnhem Land region of Australia’s Northern Territory. After witnessing the teenage Gulpilil perform authentic ceremonial dances with grace, precision, and charisma, Roeg cast him in Walkabout. Sources vary as to Gulpilil’s age during production; some say 15 and others 17. A few web sources note his date of birth as July 1, 1953. In a documentary about his life called Gulpilil: One Red Blood, he claimed he didn’t know when he was born and just estimated his age when asked. Age is not the only conflicting information about Gulpilil, making it difficult to trust existing sources on his background. Even the spelling of his name is not definitive: Though he goes by Gulpilil, he noted in the documentary that it is more like Gulparil, and I have seen it spelled as Gumpilil. These biographical bits and pieces are minutia that seem to obsess the white world but are not necessarily important to the Aborigine. What is important is that he spent his childhood in the bush, where he received a traditional upbringing while attending the mission school.
Gulpilil could not speak English when he landed his role in Walkabout. He answered, “Yes”—the only word he knew—to any question posed to him by Roeg. But, by the time the film was released, he had added English to list of indigenous languages he could speak. Roeg took him to the Cannes Film Festival, London, and Los Angeles, where he met royalty, heads of state, and celebrities. He met the Queen of England on the red carpet, and he partied with John Lennon.
This experience marked a pattern throughout Gulpilil’s life in which he had a foot in two worlds—the traditional, indigenous life and the life of a popular actor in films and television. Anyone who has ever led a life divided by two opposing cultures, whether it is between indigenous and mainstream, rural and urban, poor and rich, or black and white, understands the difficulties it imposes on identity. One world is continually calling you or pulling at you while you try to live in the other. Throughout the decades, Gulpilil has had his share of personal issues, no doubt due at least in part to his divided life.
Walkabout is a variation on the lost children trope, in which innocent kids who are lost in the wilds of nature learn something about themselves as they find their way home. However, this story is not a cute adventure tale about clever kids on an impossible journey. After a shocking opening sequence, the narrative begins when a brother and sister find themselves stranded in the Outback. They fall in with a young Aborigine who is on walkabout. He saves their lives, but they prove detrimental to his as communication between them is difficult and the division between their cultures insurmountable.
Though part of this Friday’s line-up, Walkabout is not associated with the Australian New Wave. Not only does it precede the New Wave but it was directed by Englishman Roeg, who had a decidedly different view of the Aborigines compared to pre-New Wave Australian films. Previously, indigenous people were generally depicted as servants or savages. For example, in Journey Out of the Darkness, one of the country’s most popular films of the 1960s, the story follows a constable on a quest to bring in an aboriginal man accused of murder by using a native tracker named Jubbal. The tracker faces a dilemma because he feels caught between two worlds. Though the story seems sympathetic to Aborigines, Jubbal was played by a white actor and the aboriginal murderer by an Asian. Gulpilil’s portrayal of the young Aborigine on walkabout was groundbreaking. Not only was it authentic to aboriginal culture but he was charismatic and dynamic. In One Red Blood, Australian actor Jack Thompson called Gulpilil sexy, noting, “No Australian director would have done that.”
Gulpilil appeared in more films and television productions during the early 1970s, a highly politicized era that coincided with gains for indigenous people. He was part of the cast of Boney, a television series focusing on an aboriginal policeman who solved crimes, though he did not play the title character. In 1977, he costarred in The Last Wave opposite Richard Chamberlain, who stars as a lawyer defending Gulpilil and other Aborigines on a manslaughter charge. Chamberlain experiences apocalyptic nightmares in which all of Sydney is flooded by water. As Australia experiences relentless downpours and fierce storms, the naïve lawyer is drawn into the underground world of Sydney’s Aborigines who live a kind of tribal life in the slums. To the Aborigines, the city is a transient facade that conceals ancient mysteries and ritual objects buried in forgotten catacombs under the city. As mystical as it is mysterious, The Last Wave is a horror tale that seems relevant in an era of global warming and climate change.
The making of the film was as other-worldly as the subject matter. Weir was compelled to write the script after experiencing a moment of precognition on a beach in Tunisia, which led him to discover a piece of ancient statuary. In collaboration with various writers, Weir rewrote the script more than a few times before arriving at the final version. Previous contact with Gulpilil on an episode of a television series led him to write a part for him in The Last Wave, though he did not know if the actor was available. More involvement with the Aborigines on the film resulted in a deepening of the script and some striking imagery, including a dream image of a dripping-wet Gulpilil holding a sacred artifact in his hand. In a 1979 interview with Judith Kass, Weir recounted how he came to better understand the different perception that Aborigines have on the world.
Weir recalled, “. . . we were chatting in a bar one night after work and [Gulpilil] said some things about his family and then suddenly he said some English sentence. It was something like ‘You see my father and I and that’s why because the moon isn’t.’ And I said, ‘What’s that mean—your father and I and the moon isn’t?’ And he repeated it. I said, ‘David, I don’t understand.’. . . And I thought about it that night and the next morning and suddenly I realized what it was. That he was talking about another perception. He was talking about an experience for which there are no words. He’d seen something in another way. That was a breakthrough for me, firstly in my writing of the screenplay, and secondly in my future conversations with him, because then I would look out for these moments or I would provoke them.”
After playing Paul Hogan’s bush buddy in Crocodile Dundee, the acting roles dried up for Gulpilil. The lack of roles hit hard for the actor, who had no money to show for his long career. According to Gulpilil, most of the money he earned went to the family members and friends, because everything is shared in tribal communities. As he noted in the documentary, everything is “ours” to traditional Aborigines. In contrast, “everything is private property” in the white man’s world.
Throughout his acting career, Gulpilil returned home to Ramingining to live traditionally, reconnecting with family and friends. Perhaps the most famous traditional dancer in his country, he organized troupes of dancers and musicians to perform at festivals, including the Darwin Australia Day Eisteddfod dance competition, which he won four times. Gulpilil is also a published storyteller. He has authored two volumes of children’s stories based on Yolngu beliefs, including Gulpilil’s Stories of the Dreamtime. One Red Blood, which was released in 2003, shows the actor very much at home in the bush. We see him working constantly to keep an old, beat-up truck running, hunting in the bush, and tossing lizards and snakes onto the fire for food. Ramingining is a far cry from Sydney, literally and figuratively. In the documentary, his agent recalls the lengths that Gulpilil had to go through to retrieve his passport when a production company wanted him to fly to Europe for an interview. He took a plane to the Northern Territories, then rode into the bush in a truck. When he got closer to his home, he walked several miles before swimming across a river. He retrieved his passport, swam back across the river with the document in his mouth, walked back to the point where a truck met him to take him to the tiny airport, where he took a small plane to Sydney. From there, he and his agent flew to Europe.
The actor made a comeback in 2002 when he starred in two films in which he played an aboriginal tracker. In the highly acclaimed Rabbit-Proof Fence, his character tracks three mixed-race girls who run away from a settlement home in order to return to their community. Rabbit-Proof Fence was directed by Australian New Wave filmmaker Phillip Noyce, who was in awe of Gulpilil’s ability to actually track. In other words, he knew how to look at nature in order to find any rock, leaf, or bit of dust that had been disturbed. Though Rabbit-Proof Fence garnered critical acclaim for both Noyce and Gulpilil, I prefer Rolf de Heer’s The Tracker released that same year . The Tracker exposes the brutal treatment of indigenous peoples through the story of three white men and a tracker who go into the Outback in search of an Aborigine accused of murdering a white woman. At least that is the goal of the three white men; the tracker has another agenda, which is gradually exposed as the story progresses. The Tracker is my favorite Australian film from any era; I wish it had been part of the TCM line-up.
Gulpilil’s divided life has taken its toll. Influences from a high-profile early career, in which he smoked pot with Bob Marley and imbibed in mind-altering substances with Dennis Hopper, combined with the ups and downs of his life left him with a substance abuse problem, most notably drinking. In 2005, he lost his driver’s license for a year; later, he served a prison term for an alcohol-related traffic offense. In 2007 and 2011, he served time for domestic abuse for hitting his wife while intoxicated. Now 60-ish, Gulpilil is plagued with ill health. In 2012, while making Satellite Boy, directed by Catriona McKenzie, it became so painful to walk that the crew carried him in his director’s chair from one part of the location to another—a tragically ironic outcome for an actor who made his reputation playing a character on walkabout.
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