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Rolf de Heer’s long-term friendship with actor David Gulpilil once again unearths filmic gold. By Steve Dow.

’Charlie’s Country’ director Rolf de Heer shows his Dutch courage

Rolf de Heer directs David Gulpilil in their latest collaboration, Charlie's Country.
Credit: ENTERTAINMENT ONE AUSTRALIA

In the summer of late 1959, aged eight, Dutch-born Rolf de Heer arrives at Sydney’s Berowra Public School, speaking almost no English. He is the son of an electrical engineer, who had first relocated the family for work to Padang, in a European jungle enclave. Following civil war in Sumatra, the family find themselves at Western Sydney’s Scheyville migrant camp, before settling in Hornsby in the city’s north. 

The third eldest of six siblings, Rolf forgets his Dutch and will pursue studies in French, Latin, German and philosophy, but within a couple of years, thanks to voracious reading, tops his English class. 

A comic book distributed to Berowra Public pupils introduces the concept of the Dreaming, showing Aboriginal people happily living in humpies, dreaming of the past, the natives occasionally punished for spearing a white man. Childlike, like Kenny Hamilton, the Aboriginal boy in another class, and the first Aboriginal Rolf has met. Kenny seems happy, so Rolf has no cause to question the comic.

He loses track of what becomes of Kenny Hamilton, but de Heer will eventually come to understand the comic book lacks a true grand narrative. He will write that story himself, of frontier warfare and repeating rifles, for a film called The Tracker, a script treatment that will sit on his shelf half-forgotten for a decade before finally being made and garlanded in awards.

And de Heer will come to hate the popular usage of the Dreaming. It’s a whitefella word, he learns. So, too, the Dreamtime. Two “anthropologists”, British-born Walter Baldwin Spencer and Australian-born Frank Gillen, actually a botanist and postmaster respectively, brought the words into common usage from 1896, probably based on a mistranslation of central Australian Aranda people’s language. Linguists argue the Aranda have no word for the abstract concept of “dream”.

De Heer doesn’t put too much stock in historic colonial folklore but, curiously, his Dutch countrymen were the first recorded Europeans to set foot on Australian soil, in the early 17th century, moving through colonial Dutch East Indies, although Macassan fishermen were probably in Australia much earlier. 

The Dutch were also the first recorded Europeans to have contact with the Yolngu people of Australia’s north-east Arnhem Land, in 1628. Rolf de Heer’s first contact with the Yolngu, almost 400 years later, would presage directing three films with the celebrated Indigenous actor David Gulpilil from the Top End. First was The Tracker, in 2002, about frontier racism and murder. Then, in 2006, Ten Canoes, a paean to Yolngu culture and millennia-old mythology filmed in Ganalbingu language.

Now, in 2014, comes Charlie’s Country, a contemporary story, set against the Northern Territory intervention, in which Gulpilil speaks in his native Mandalpingu. Written with de Heer while Gulpilil served a five-month jail term in 2011 for aggravated assault committed on his partner and then a period in alcohol rehabilitation, the film – and prison – saved Gulpilil from self-destruction. 

The essence of Charlie’s Country, though not the exact details, is autobiographical, and Gulpilil’s nuanced and intimate performance won him a Best Actor award in the Un Certain Regard category at the Cannes Film Festival in May, beating actors in 19 other films.

But de Heer’s backstory? James Currie, the innovative sound designer who has worked on most of de Heer’s 14 completed feature films, was once asked if de Heer was a “macho” director. “No, definitely not,” Currie answered. “In fact, because he came to Australia from Holland via Indonesia, and hardly spoke any English, he used to get beaten up at school. But he had a brother. Big boy. And his brother used to wait outside the school and keep all the larrikins and the boofheads away.” 

The writer-director’s features are marked by an unconscious signature “reflecting a world view in which the voices of marginalised, non hyper-masculine people, or those one might call ‘unlikely protagonists’ are privileged and foregrounded”, argues Queensland University of Technology researcher D. Bruno Starrs in his 2009 PhD monograph, Dutch Tilt, Aussie Auteur: The Films of Rolf de Heer. It is a “world in which exploitative machismo goes unrewarded”.

It’s tempting to see much of de Heer’s work as championing the “other”, the outsider. He made his first feature 30 years ago, the children’s movie Tail of a Tiger, after graduating from the Australian Film, Television and Radio School. It’s the story of a bullied child ostracised from his peer group who triumphs by flying over Sydney Harbour in a Tiger Moth. 

Currie, however, qualifies that de Heer is “mentally tough” and “brave as all get out”, walking through the Amazonian swamp to make The Old Man Who Read Love Stories, a film shot in 2000 and finally released in Australia in 2004 after intense squabbling among myriad international producers and distributors. 

An ecological morality tale set in postcolonial South America, it starred Richard Dreyfuss as Antonio Bolivar, a white man accepted by the Shuar tribe. De Heer rewrote the violent script presented to him and returned to Chilean writer Luis Sepúlveda’s original, gentle 1989 novella. De Heer once said The Old Man Who Read Love Stories is “the film that best represents who I am” but insists, when I meet him, he simply rewrote the script because it was a mess. 

The storyteller

Rolf de Heer, 63, sits in the cafe at Tasmania’s MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art, where the “love of my life”, Molly Reynolds, the new media producer and documentary maker, has just delivered her documentary film about the Yolngu people, Still Our Country, for its premiere here at the winter Dark MOFO festival.

That documentary, and one she has directed on Gulpilil, now in its final edit, was made about the same time as de Heer made Charlie’s Country. De Heer and Reynolds moved a couple of years ago from Adelaide to an isolated rural property 100 kilometres south of Hobart. There are possums, bandicoots and pademelons on their isolated block, and no human neighbours. They might raise sheep there.

His signature ponytail gone and hair and beard now white and neatly trimmed, de Heer looks over his half-rimmed spectacles between bites from a bowl of roasted vegetables and insists he doesn’t recall particularly having problems making friends at school. But did being a migrant give him an affinity with outsiders? 

“Look, in primary school to begin with, you’re recognised as being a migrant, a wog, okay? Even though I’m as white as white can be. But then it went away. It never bothered me much.” He had “sort-of friends at school, not deep friendships, but normal friendships, I think. I don’t know that I ever felt more of an outsider than anybody ever feels.”

Some of his films, he concedes, can be seen as concerned with people who might be seen as “others”. The film critic Rose Capp, citing de Heer’s seventh film, Dance Me to My Song (1998), credited to and starring the late Heather Rose as a woman with severe cerebral palsy who communicates through a machine, says de Heer’s films are “frequently preoccupied with the profound inadequacy or outright failure of language as a means of communication”. 

I suggest to de Heer his work might be concerned with the power, abuse and shortcomings of the dominant language, citing his infamous fourth film, Bad Boy Bubby (1993), in which a man locked in a room for his first 35 years is essentially imprisoned by the lies of a religious, incestuous mother until Bubby finally suffocates her with cling film – after dispensing with the pet cat and then Bubby’s alcoholic priest father in the same manner.

Then there’s The Quiet Room (1996), in which de Heer cast his two children, Chloe and Phoebe Ferguson, from his first marriage, as a little girl at different ages who becomes defiantly mute when her parents spit the ugly language of domestic war and separation. (Both his children have eschewed acting for science. Chloe, now 25, is about to graduate with a PhD in marine biology while Phoebe, 21, may pursue genetics.)

But these stories were driven by filmmaking practicalities, not to make a point about language, de Heer insists. The little girl in The Quiet Room was made mute because Chloe was then not a natural actor. Limited finances meant Bubby was shot over two years, each new piece of film scrimped and saved for, the crew constantly changing – 32 cinematographers in total – according to who was available on a given weekend. “That’s why I locked the character up, free of any association from the outside world,” he explains. “So that, when released, anywhere he went, was the first time in his experience.”

De Heer could have solved his money problems soon after making his weird but strangely watchable second film, Incident at Raven’s Gate, in 1988, when he was offered the chance to make Alien 3 and a Texas Chainsaw Massacre sequel, the latter guaranteeing him a seven-figure sum to direct. But the spectre of his daughters later asking him “Dad, why did you make this?” haunted him.

Despite the spirituality of his indigenous films and in the eco-calamity feature Epsilon in 1995, de Heer says he’s an atheist. He cites his politics as left, and opines that democracy has “failed” because countries such as Australia have taken inadequate action on climate change. 

He hasn’t owned a television set for years, arguing humanity should “get rid” of television because it has allowed “society to get as consumerist as it is”. But he won’t buy into theorising his film work. He cites a fear of becoming self-conscious and contriving to have his characters act in an untrue way, which audiences will reject. 

“Me, as a storyteller, I can’t afford to think that stuff. Contrivances in writing come about if I think about it too much; if I intellectualise about things I start to put things in, say, a subplot. I know there’s stuff happening below a conscious level, and it’s fine, but mostly when I’m writing, I think: Does it work? Yes, it does.”

De Heer’s eventual friendship with David Gulpilil rings true. He cast Gulpilil sight unseen for The Tracker, then met the Yolngu actor, first seen by audiences in Nicolas Roeg’s 1971 film Walkabout, in an Adelaide pub, four months before shooting. “My meeting with him was so shocking. I could barely understand him. I thought, ‘I don’t know how to direct this man; I have culturally nothing in common with him at all. Nothing. I don’t know what to say to him.’ ”

But Gulpilil invited de Heer to spend a week with him on the actor’s traditional lands. They hung out together, yarning with his mob and spear-fishing. The Tracker’s success was meant to be followed by Gulpilil taking a starring role in Ten Canoes in 2006, but a tribal dispute de Heer never quite understood drove Gulpilil away from his home in Ramingining, a “dry” community, by community leaders’ choice, that had earlier helped Gulpilil curb his excesses. 

While Gulpilil was able to complete a studio voiceover for Ten Canoes, his life spiralled out of control with old problems of drinking and marijuana abuse escalating and a jail conviction for assault on his wife, Miriam Ashley. The pair has since separated.

Now, with alcohol rehabilitation and his awarded role in Charlie’s Country, Gulpilil has achieved a sort of transcendence. De Heer speaks with him most days and says the actor hasn’t touched alcohol or ganja for close to three years, and wants to make more films.

The Northern Territory intervention is ever-present as shading in Charlie’s Country, though the details of the controversial policy are only sketched into the film. De Heer says the intervention should never have happened. 

“When you think of how it came about, ‘save the little children, abuse of children in indigenous communities’. How many billions of dollars have been spent on it?” De Heer grits his teeth. “Not a single prosecution for child abuse … overall, from my observation in Ramingining, it fails quite badly. 

“Many more young men are going to prison than used to. They don’t behave any worse, but now they’re going to prison. Is that a good outcome? No, it’s a terrible outcome. The amount of sly grog is now much more than it used to be. The amount of ganja is much more than it used to be. They’re all terrible outcomes. You can’t deal with these problems in a ‘one-size-fits-all’ way.”

Charlie’s Country will again open divisions about the intervention – rebadged as the similar Stronger Futures policy – and, despite the isolation of a Tasmanian idyll, de Heer, auteur or not, may again be asked to speak alongside the outsider, the other beyond the boundary.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 19, 2014 as "Dutch courage". Subscribe here.

Steve Dow
is a Melbourne-born, Sydney-based arts writer.