It’s not widely appreciated what an electrifying effect Nicolas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971) had on the Australian film industry. To put it bluntly, at that time there was no Australian film industry, only occasional features made in Australia by overseas directors. Michael Powell left two notable contributions: They’re a Weird Mob (1966) and Age of Consent (1969), but it was Roeg’s second movie that jolted the local cinema into action.
The following year saw the release of Bruce Beresford’s critically-reviled, box-office hit, The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, and the Australian film renaissance of the 70s was well & truly underway.
Walkabout did poorly at the Australian box office and was peevishly received by local reviewers who seemed to resent the idea of a British director coming to Australia and making a movie featuring Our Outback, Our fauna and flora, and one of Our Aborigines in a leading role. It’s an Australian syndrome: we habitually ignore what is unique and special about this country and then wax indignant when a foreign artist takes a creative interest. It’s not just Nic Roeg who has received this treatment, but figures such as Anselm Kiefer and Bruce Chatwin.
For viewers around the world the most unforgettable aspect of Walkabout was the performance of teenage David Gulpilil, who acts as guide and saviour to an English girl and her little brother who are lost in the desert. Roeg encountered Gulpilil in the Arnhem Land settlement of Maningrida, and was impressed by his skills as a hunter, singer and dancer. It turned out to be an inspired choice. Gulpilil’s on-screen charisma and self-confidence made him into an instant star. At the age of 17 he would travel the world with the movie, being feted by the press in every country. He had dinner with the Royal Family, and would meet figures such as John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix, Bruce Lee and Bob Marley.
Walkabout was the beginning of an active career. For decades Gulpilil was first-in-line for any part that required an Aboriginal actor. The list includes Storm Boy (1976), Mad Dog Morgan (1976), The Last Wave (1977), Crocodile Dundee (1986), Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) and The Tracker (2002). He received late accolades for his performance in Rolf de Heer’s Charlie’s Country (2013), a painfully autobiographical film made while Gulpilil was still in rehab, getting his life back on track.
Molly Reynolds’s documentary, My Name is Gulpilil, finds the actor, now aged 67, living as an invalid in Murray Bridge, S.A. He is battling lung cancer, and even though he has already outlasted the doctors’ predictions, he knows there’s no reprieve in sight.
These days Gulpilil’s constant companion is Mary Hood, an elderly white lady who acts as his friend and minder. Mary looks after his medication, she feeds him and does the housework. Gulpilil himself is not up for much. He walks with painful slowness and needs various devices to help him breathe. He is still a stylish dresser and still possessed of the same sense of humour. When he tells a friend he’s shivering like a fish from the billabong, it’s a line that would make Barry McKenzie proud. But for the most part his conversation is tempered with stoicism as thoughts of mortality weigh on his mind.
As an actor Gulpilil was as much a cultural folk hero and pioneer as Albert Namatjira was as a painter. Like Namatjira he was a fully tribal man who learned to adapt to western ways, enjoyed enormous fame and suffered a humiliating fall from grace. The difference is that Gulpilil’s fall was an extended process that began with a high-spirited over-indulgence in booze, dope and cigarettes, and ended in multiple imprisonments, including a 12 month sentence on a domestic violence charge.
Today Gulpilil is clean and regretful of his past deeds. He realises he has irreparably destroyed his own health with his heavy smoking, yet he retains many traces of an irrepressible personality. He can still boast that he’s the greatest dancer in the world and that he understands everything there is to know about filmmaking. As for acting, it couldn’t be easier.
“Acting is just natural,” he says, “like going hunting or fishing, like dancing… not very hard to do it.”
Reynolds takes her time with this portrait, allowing Gulpilil to tell his own story in whatever manner he thinks fit. He is the most unreliable of narrators, even forgetting his own age, but there is no attempt to question him or draw out details. I can understand this approach but it makes for a slow, meandering film, punctuated by brief clips from Gulpilil’s movies, extracts from a one-man stage show he presented in 2004, and relevant newsreel footage.
We are left with a feeling of a life in fragments, which may be close to reality but leaves one with the impression there is a lot of territory yet to be explored. It would be a fascinating study to look at each of the roles Gulpilil has played and what they say about our understanding of indigenous Australians and their culture. Compare the dynamic Gulpilil of Walkabout with the trivialised, comic figure he cuts in Crocodile Dundee, or the bleak realism of his role in Charlie’s Country, and an entire history of changing attitudes is laid bare. This documentary never digs too deeply but there’s a book waiting to be written.
A large part of the film is taken up with Gulpilil contemplating his own demise, veering between optimism and fatalism. A good report at the doctor’s office raises his spirits, as does a new oxygen device, but as the disease takes charge again he accepts there will be no miracle cure. Perhaps the saddest – and most overtly symbolic – scenes show him struggling to blow out the candles on a birthday cake while friends cheer him on.
“I’m not scared but I’m sorry,” he says. “You can pray for me – it won’t work. It doesn’t work.”
When his sisters visit they discuss plans for his funeral and for the return of his spirit to the billabong. There, according to Yolngu lore, he will become a fish while awaiting rebirth. In this scene we realise the degree to which Gulpilil has remained entrenched in the culture of his people, and how he cherishes his connection to country. Having spent so much time among the balanda he has lived a life that straddles two worlds. In the afterlife he’ll be returning to his roots.
My Name is Gulpilil
Writen & directed by Molly Reynolds
Starring David Gulpilil, Mary Hood, Mary Dhapalany, Evonne Munuyngu, Peter Djigirr
Australia, rated M, 101 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 12 June, 2021