On Gulpilil and De Heer, collaborators through time.
‘I’m a ballerina, a dancer, I’m an artist, I’m a writer and I studied the earth, same as David Attenborough.’ — David Gulpilil
I’ve always been fascinated by the intersection of Aboriginal storytelling and cinematic storytelling. Here on one hand is the oldest form of storytelling in existence, and on the other is one of the youngest. And yet, the two intersect in a way that seems predestined. I think it is because both are mediums concerned with the manipulation and translation of time, and by extension, space–both communicating through the language of dreams and memory.
In a more basic sense, they are both collaborative mediums, ones where stories and images pass through and bounce off one another, built for the audiences of the future as much as they are for the past and the present—grand in scope, yet granular in detail. These are stories shaped by their telling, and how that is interpreted by narrator, listener, and audience.
In both there is a sense of a thousand voices projected as one.
The collaborations between director Rolf de Heer and actor (dancer/writer/painter/elder) David Ridjimirail Dalaithngu Gulpilil are some of the greatest collaborations between a director and actor in the history of cinema, in my opinion. Scorsese had Deniro, Kurosawa had Mifune, and de Heer had Gulpilil—an iconoclast if there ever was one.
Through three feature films together (The Tracker, Ten Canoes, Charlie’s Country) they produced some of the richest cross-cultural texts in this nation’s history.
Gulpilil, as many have said and anyone must notice, seemed born for the camera. It is difficult to talk about his screen presence without descending into hyperbole that borders on fetishistic. It is easier, I think, difficult for many to accept that language falls short at explaining what a frame of film says in an instant: this is an artist. I think what people assign to magic and myth with Gulpilil can sometimes be a roundabout way of avoiding the bare naked truth of the man: he was a genius, in the truest sense of the word.
There was no artificiality in any of his performances. As he quips in this year’s elegeic My Name is Gulpilil: ‘I don’t pretend…I just jump in, and the camera sees me.’
What does such a force mean for a director? Gulpilil’s presence was so kinetic–so immense–as to be overwhelming. It overrides the rote tenets of directing, scriptwriting, shooting, and editing. What is it to guide and capture someone who can run you through the gamut of feeling and knowing with a half-second glance? It’d be like wrangling lighting.
The only actor I feel has an energy anywhere near Gulpilil’s is the aforementioned Toshiro Mifune, namely in his famous collaborations with Akira Kurosawa. In his memoir Something Like an Autobiography, Kurosawa reflects on the leading man who would become synonymous with his best work, who he was, at the time of writing, estranged from: ‘It was, above all the speed with which he expressed himself that was astounding…he put forth everything directly and boldly…where the ordinary Japanese actor might need ten feet of film to get across an impression, Mifune needed only three feet.’
Gulpilil only needed three frames. de Heer was the first director to truly understand this.
The Tracker is a deceptively simple film. It’s cinematography and its editing are both relatively staid, as is its pace. It’s simplicity is what makes it so barbarous: there is a sense throughout that you are looking at a pitbull sat three feet from a toddler, held back by a fraying rope. Gulpilil himself is dragged along on a leash (literally) for a good chunk of the film. But there is a moment, a look he gives both the film’s villains and its audience, when things shift. He is in court jester mode for a great part of this film, and like all jesters, he is guiding us through tragedy towards epiphany. The way he shifts from indentured to empowered is such a masterful feat of physical control: the slow loosening of limbs, the sliding knowingness of his smirk, his creeping seriousness–all captured perfectly by de Heer, who cracks Gulpilil across the landscape like a thunderclap.
In Ten Canoes Gulpilil is our narrator, but the film is really his. This was de Heer working in direct collaboration with Gulpilil’s people–his family–on their country. Ten Canoes, rightfully, gets a lot of credit for being entirely in language and the only feature film about pre-settler Australia. What gets overlooked in discussions of the film’s technical, historical, and cultural veracity however, is its attitude, which is distinctly Gulpilil. Ten Canoes is filled with fart jokes, horny gags, and hysterical kvetching—it’s a gleefully cheeky movie. In the hands of another director, one who was not so familiar with the crackling personality of their creative partner, a film like Ten Canoes could easily be a stoic, self-serious affair. But it isn’t, and we’re all the better for it.
Then there is Charlie’s Country, a film often described as ‘autobiographical’ when it is really speculative. Charlie may be Gulpilil if Nicholas Roeg had never ‘discovered’ him way back in 1968. It has been stated in interviews by de Heer that he made Charlie’s Country with the hope of saving Gulpilil’s life, Gulpilil having descended into ill-health and ruin at that stage. It is surely Gulpilil’s most masterful performance, one so nakedly humorous and vulnerable that it could only ever be brought out by someone as intimately a part of him as de Heer was, through thick and thin.
In an incredibly gentle piece which appeared this April in The Sydney Morning Herald in advance of My Name is Gulpilil, de Heer writes about caring for his dying friend, driving him to their favourite spots a long on the Murrundi, sitting together in reminiscence as friend, collaborator, and nurse. It’s a brief window into a relationship built around art, and a respect for one another as artists, one where the two had seen each other at their most naked and vulnerable, in the act of creating art. de Heer writes: ‘often, on an outing that might take three or four hours, less than a dozen words would be exchanged between us. We were both very comfortable with the long silences; we trusted them.’
That long silence will now stretch out for eternity, but it is tethered to a series of works that managed to pluck the impossible out from the infinite river of time–—like a kingfisher, plucking silvery fish out of the muddy Murrundi.