Sadly, but just as he predicted, actor, dancer, painter and troubled Yolngu man, David Gulpilil’s spirit has returned to the billabong at Gulparil from which he was born in 1953. I wrote about him – under the prescient headline, ‘Farewell to Gulpilil’ – when reviewing his last, autobiographical film, ‘My Name is Gulpilil‘ in June.
As a tribute to the 2013 Red Ochre winner – the highest accolade in Australia’s First Nations awards for cultural contribution – I’m re-running that review:
It’s downright depressing to sit in a completely empty cinema to farewell David Gulpilil. But his autobiographical film, directed by Molly Reynolds – long associated with Gulpilil as the partner of three-time feature-film collaborator, Rolf deHeer – has been so badly promoted in Sydney that few know it’s on and few cinemas are bothering to show it.
For, despite being a tad over-long, this is a marvellous evocation of this mercurial man’s life and art. And, being “a tribal man – full-blood”, as he himself puts it, his talents extend well beyond film acting to dancing, painting, singing and a mastery of ceremonial culture. No wonder he won the 2013 Red Ochre Award from his peers. But David Gulpilil Ridjimiraril Dalaithngu AM – as he’s properly known, the David being added by the missionaries at Milingimbi – had many of the weaknesses that the whitefellars’ world introduced him to. This was especially the case upon encountering a perpetually-stoned Dennis Hopper and a frequently drunk John Mellion on ‘Mad Dog Morgan’ – just his second film after his debut as the luminous teenager we first saw in ‘Walkabout‘ in 1971.
Gulpilil is still alive, I’m glad to say – though he’s quite clear in the film that he’s dying of lung cancer, despite religiously taking his pills, undergoing radiotherapy and demanding his puffer from the extraordinary Mary – his patient carer in Murray Bridge, SA, of all places.
As we drive past the serried ranks of neat bungalows in that town, it’s hardly surprising that he can say, “I miss my Country”, while also acknowledging that “Arnhemland clever men couldn’t do it” – cure him. But we also make the link between the happy days he had filming ‘Storm Boy’ in 1976 on the Coorong and ‘The Tracker’ (“My first lead role”) in the Flinders Ranges in 2002, so that South Australia has a legitimate role as his Country too.
Somehow they got him back to real Country during the film, and the ease with which he drops into language to embrace it is a delight. We also see him bringing custom to Murray Bridge via his religiously kept collection of skeins from his mighty head of hair – both black from former days, and grey today. Only his clan has the right to make traditional hairstring belts, he explains.
But certain things follow him wherever Gulpilil goes. The opening (possibly faked?) has him walking slowly down a country road in SA lockstep with an emu. He turns, it turns. A magical start. But later on, we see the lithe young man pursuing an emu, spear in hand. We also see him dancing the emu imitatively. And dance is where I first encountered Gulpilil in the flesh, at one of Perth’s two Indian Ocean Festivals – delighting African and Indian artists with his extraordinary terpsichorean skills. Well may he say, “I’m the greatest dancer in the world; just for me”. For me too!
And he still has his slimline dancer’s legs, even if they no longer work too well. Best of all, he still has those mesmeric eyes, so loved by film cameras. And they’re still alight, even as he says farewell – planning his funeral and his spirit’s return to the billabong at Gulparil, from which he was born. His tearful sisters – visiting Murray Bridge – seem to think he’ll become a fish again there!
Film clips reveal many of Gulpilil’s talents – most delightfully in ‘The Tracker’ where Gary Sweet’s white policeman jokes that he’ll probably be hanged when they return to town. After a magic pause, Gulpilil too laughs uproariously at this – knowingly predicting that it’s the whitefellar who will never actually return to town.
And that masterful facial acting still flickers. When offered a calming pill by Mary, he can’t resist giving us a brief picture of what his agitation might have looked like without it. Anyone who saw his first autobiography – Rolf deHeer’s ‘Charlie’s Country’ – will be glad that his agitation today is so mild. But anyone who saw Gulpilil on stage in his eponymous play (directed by Neil Armfield), knows what a hilarious story-teller he is, and the film’s episode from that involving the Queen at dinner can now go on to delight future generations.
“My story will stay”, Gulpilil tells us confidently.
And so will his work on film. Seek it out. It’s currently available on ABC Iview
Remarkably, I’ve just come across some wonderful film of the young Gulpilil dancing, held at the National Film and Sound Archive. It comes from 1979 in Hawaii of all places. The Aboriginal Artists Agency lead a tour there in the January for Honolulu’s Bishop Museum, presenting music and dance in performances both within the museum and outside at shopping centres and schools.
David Gulpilil was joined by Djoli Laiwanga (his mentor at that stage of his life) and Djoli’s team of David Blanasi and Dick Plummer, all from Bamyili in Arnhhemland. The Australian Consulate took a background role but Consul Bill Rowe struck up a friendship over the week and AAA agreed to do an extra performance exclusively for the Consulate. Rowe hit upon the idea of combining the performance with the celebration of Australia Day, one of the Consulate’s ‘big nights of the year’ in Honolulu.
In the dark of the night, the gleam of white ochre body decorations are particularly dramatic. Gulpilil is the younger and wilder of the two dancers: