Rolf de Heer has had an incredibly varied career but the last ten years of his life have been largely focused on Australia's Aboriginal community. Following The Tracker, Ten Canoes and the documentary project Twelve Canoes, the director has returned to this territory with his superb new film Charlie's Country, which tells the story of an old man trying to cling onto his land and culture in changing times. The film was written for David Gulpilil when the actor was at his lowest ebb – suffering from alcoholism and depression, and languishing in jail – and it is clear that the film has proven to be a powerful and rewarding experience for both the director and star. Rolf de Heer came to London recently to present Charlie's Country at the London Film Festival, and I met him to discuss the film, the problems faced by Aboriginal people, and his extraordinary Bad Boy Bubby.
This is the third feature you've made with Aboriginal people. How have you had to adapt your approach to filmmaking to work with them over the course of these films?
Each one has been very different, and how it has come about and why. I haven't sought to create this indigenous body of work but it has happened that way, and it's not something I would have normally chosen to do because it's too hard. Tracker was one thing, it was a very contained shoot, it was a one-on-one property that had this extraordinary variety of locations, and it was a very dry shoot, meaning deserts and so on. Up in Arnhem Land, where David's mob comes from, it's a different question. Ten Canoes was a difficult film to make because I was learning how to make a film with the mob, and there are language difficulties and conditions that are difficult and so on. When Charlie's Country came up it was different because I knew them. I'd had an ongoing relationship over a long period of time, and it was continuous because you can't just walk into a place and then walk out, you create obligations and relationships and you try and maintain those in some way. When this came up they were there waiting because they'd had an extraordinary experience with Ten Canoes and they wanted another one. Quite unexpectedly old Minygululu who walked out of Ten Canoes because it was too much humbug came back and wanted to do it again, so I had to put a part in there for him. So each one has been a very different experience, and each film I make I have to approach very differently. It's about what is the best approach to that film, and I then I try to tailor my thinking and my way of being to what's required for that film. On Ten Canoes I had a mantra of patience – never lose your temper, never behave like a white person who wants it now, try and think of it from their point of view. Without that I would have perished.
One of the things I loved about Ten Canoes is that it felt like they were being given an opportunity to tell their story in their own way.
And that's what I felt. I felt I was the means by which they could tell their story because they were not capable of doing it themselves, but they had a strong idea of what they wanted. When all the really ethnographic stuff started coming into it I said 'We can do that, but if we do it we should do it like this, it should be a television documentary, we could make it beautifully like this, etc'. They talked about it among themselves and said 'No, we want a movie, like David makes, and we want it to work for our mob but we also want it to work for that overseas mob, so they can understand our culture'. That gave me a very clear brief as to how to do it. With this one it was entirely about David and it needed to be because he was at a very low ebb, and he looked like he was going under. To begin with it was created around David, around his strengths and liabilities, to try and somehow give him something of lasting value, which it has done because he hasn't had a drink for three years. It has really changed his life. It's changed his life because he's had this engaged opportunity, which he's never had before. He's never been that involved in a film, he's never had a say, he's simply gone on set and acted. And he's a genius, I mean, he can't articulate himself in English as well as you and I can, but he's a genius no question about that, and this gave him more than it has ever given him on that level.
He has had such an extraordinary life, being plucked from obscurity for Walkabout and then having a career that set him apart from his people in such a way. I guess it's inevitable that such experiences would cause immense strain on him and on his relationship with his community.
Yeah, because his own community can't understand him anymore. And he has gone wild, because on Walkabout John Meillon was a hellraiser and he taught 16 year-old David how to act sober while being drunk, and a couple of films later he does Mad Dog Morgan with Dennis Hopper! David still delights in telling stories of getting locked up with Dennis Hopper, and these were his role models as a young kid so he comes back to his community radically changed. They don't understand him anymore, they don't understand what he does and what he earns, and they don't believe him when he says he only earns this much. They think he's a movie star and they know Mel Gibson is an Australian movie star earning $20m a film, so if David says he doesn't earn $20m a film then either he's lying or he's an idiot getting ripped off by white people. It takes hours of trying to explain and they still don't get why he isn't paid more.
There's a sequence early in the film where Charlie is walking around town and people keep coming up to him for money. Is that directly drawn from David's own experience?
I've been with David when he has $300 in his pocket and he's going out to buy a packet of cigarettes. We walk half a mile to the store and back and he comes back with loose change and three or four cigarettes, the rest is gone, and that's normal for him. I spent an hour with him in Darwin recently, and he's learned not to carry money – he usually doesn't have any, apart from anything else – but 10-12 people asked him for money. That happens to him every day.
When you went to see him in prison and he asked you to make this film with him, did you have doubts about the project? As he was in a bad way, did you fear he would be unable to get through it?
Initially I ignored the question, which came at the end of the first time I went to see him in jail, and I asked if I could come to see him tomorrow. I went into my hotel room and began to work, not on things that went into the film but just thinking about how to make a film with David that had a chance of working, because he looked like all the life had gone out of him and I didn't know if he was still capable of acting at all. I just knew that if you point a camera at David and give him an instruction he can process that and be great, and that was my starting point. I thought we had better make it in whatever language he wants – because he has trouble learning lines in English, which is about his sixth language – and we'd better make it contemporary, about stuff that he knows, so he doesn't have to create a character but can draw on his own experiences in life. These things were all structured in to take into account that he may not have it anymore, but as it turned out he was simply depressed in jail and that's why the life had gone out of him. As he got rehabilitated, and I took him to the bush and back to his own community when he was out on parole, he got stronger and stronger, and he still has it in spades.
And so many of the film's most powerful moments consist of you simply putting the camera on his face and holding the shot.
He's remarkable in that way. I don't know of another actor that I've worked with who can pull that off to the extent that he does.
So I assume your directing style must have been quite loose and open to incorporating things as they happen?
To an extent, but there's still a story that has to be told and if you diverge you've got to be very careful. I can be extremely tight or I can be loose-tight, and this is a loose-tight one. David tends to like it that way anyway; he likes to know where the boundaries are and where to go with it.
One of the key themes of the film is the impact of The Intervention, and there's a lot of anger in the film about the marginalisation of this community and culture. Was it important for you to address that issue through this film?
I don't think about anything except telling the story, I don't think about making points. I'm sure in the back of my brain I do think about that, but I don't think about it consciously because the moment I think about it consciously I started to manipulate the material to get that, and then it becomes contrived and it's no longer authentic. I've spent a lot of time in Ramingining over the years and I've thought about it a lot, and I know David's politics because he rages sometimes, so it's there naturally. If you're going to make a film set in that milieu then you'll see the frustrations that they have. They talk about the law and they say 'We have laws that we've been following for 10,000 years, you white fellas change the bloody law every week! That's not law'. They get so frustrated about that and inevitably that stuff gets in the film because it's part of the whole way of being up there, and it's part of the way the police and Aboriginal people interact. It's unbelievable. They're universes apart.
There's a great line in the film where the police officer says to Charlie "We'll put you down as a recreational shooter" and with that one line he is being casually dismissive of a whole aspect of their ancient culture.
Yeah, and he's well-meaning. He's helping him get his license, he doesn't have to do it but he's trying to be a mate, trying to be friendly, and he completely fucks it up!
So what is the current status of the ongoing debate in Australia regarding the Aboriginal community? Is there any sign of a way forward on this issue?
The culture up there is changing, though we don't quite know what into. It's a difficult area because these are issues that are as much white issues as black issues, and people tend to talk about the black Aboriginal problem but it's a white fucking problem, that's what it is. It's going to take much longer than people think to sort these problems out, hundreds of years, unless the political parties decide to go bipartisan on it, which is what they should do. Otherwise it works on three-year election cycles and every bloody three years it changes again, but you have to have such long-term plans in place. It's about salvaging language and respecting that and finding ways for people to learn language so we are meeting them equally, rather than this dominant culture that they have to follow. You can't do that when there are three-year election cycles and it becomes a political football.
Towards the end of the film we see Charlie agreeing to teach the children to dance, which is his own way of sustaining that culture for another generation, but you wonder how long it can last.
One of the problems of course is that we are right now talking about Aboriginal Australia as if it's one thing, when it's many, many different things. What happens in one community is very different to what happens in another community, and it's a complete range things to consider. The notion of ceremonies and things is still very strong, but there will be a lot lost, there's no doubt it. However, those ceremonies can adapt and change like ours have, you know, our Christmas now is completely different to our Christmas 50 years ago and we don't mourn the loss of those traditions, though I guess some people do. It's okay for us to lose those traditions and they will need to adapt some of their traditions to a new situation.
It's interesting that you mention the many different Aboriginal communities because there's a scene in the film when Charlie is hanging around and drinking with a woman he meets, and his friends say she's the wrong colour for him. So he even falls afoul of rules within his own people.
Yeah, she's "the wrong skin". Their whole universe is set up quite differently than ours is. Everything is divided into these 'moieties' and there are subsections to the moieties, and everything in the universe is classified according to those things, and you have a relationship with every object in the universe and every person in the universe depending on what kinship you are. That is a law that they live to and that is one of the difficulties, living to that law and living to white law. We can do anything and they see that we can do anything, but can they? So they're damned if they don't follow our law and they're damned if they don't follow their own law, and it's a very difficult way to live.
Just before finishing I want to ask you about Bad Boy Bubby. It was a film that made a big impression on me when I saw it. I think I was around 12 years old.
Oh no! [laughs] I am sorry.
It was certainly a formative experience. But when you look back at that film, do you think 'How on earth did I get away with that?'
Well, I haven't seen it for a long time. I've had occasion to have the script open a couple of times and I see things in it, and I go 'Where the hell did that come from?' That's the thing that intrigues me. I know where it came from – inside me, I made it up – but it feels completely disconnected from who I am and I wonder how I thought of it, so that intrigues me. It wasn't a question of getting away with anything because basically the film read as if it was going to speak powerfully, and when it was made it did speak powerfully, that's all. But it was a journey and the kind of film you walk out of feeling like you've been in a washing machine for two hours, I felt like that and I know other people did, and it was never meant to be loved by everybody.
There are aspects of it, like the different cinematographers for each scene, that sound like they really shouldn't work, but the effect it creates is remarkable.
It's because it was so integrated into the way I was going to make the film. Initially I was going to make it over two years, and I thought I wouldn't be able to have the same cinematographer for all that time because he won't be available. The script was structured in a certain way and that's why I locked him up in the first place, so he would have no exposure to anything outside and the world outside could look like anything. I mean, we're sitting in this restaurant here, and we cut to Piccadilly out there, it's such a radical visual cut but we don't realise it, and there's nothing a cinematographer can do that's anything like as radical as what we do cutting between different locations. You stick a character like Bubby in there and you are looking at these different worlds that he's in, but it's our world.
Well it's certainly a film that anyone who's seen it will never forget, and not every director can claim a picture like that.
It's just extraordinary, and I've been so privileged in my lifetime of making films that I've had some that have broken through so hard and in such extraordinary ways, and this is yet another one. I think 'My God, where does it stop? It's another fluke', and that's what it feels like a bit. The privilege of having had a film like Bad Boy Bubby, you're right, you wish once in your life to have a film that gets that kind of response and breaks through in the way that it does. I'm not much one for demanding a $200m box office; it's not about that, it's about how people respond to it. I know that not everyone is going to like Bad Boy Bubby and not everyone is going to like Charlie's Country, but those that see it and do like it tend to like it immensely.