Film tracks actor's conflicting worlds

Author: Clare Kermond
Date: 05/12/2002

From Hollywood to Arnhem Land, a new documentary traces the life of David Gulpilil. Clare Kermond reports.

DAVID Gulpilil, arguably Australia's best-known Aboriginal actor, sits on the ground somewhere in the outback surrounded by a mob of giggling kids. There's excitement because the mail has arrived.

The first surprise is that Gulpilil has to call a friend to read the letter for him. The second is the contents; it's a bill that helpfully suggests he can pay using the Internet. Only there's no Internet out here, no computer, no phone and no electricity.

During three decades in the Australian film industry, Gulpilil has acted in successful films and won critical acclaim. But while his name is well known, few people know anything about his life and many would be surprised to learn that this movie star lives in the traditional Aboriginal way in Arnhem Land.

In the documentary Gulpilil: One Red Blood, we see the actor at home. With his wife, children and other relatives, he lives with little material wealth, hunts goannas and snakes, carts water and walks for miles.

Any money he has made from movies such as Storm Boy, Crocodile Dundee and, more recently, Rabbit-Proof Fence and The Tracker is shared among his community.

Gulpilil's life has been, and still is, a balancing act. He is an elder of the Yolgnu clan in Arnhem Land where he lives according to the traditional customs. But when he's working, he goes into town, speaks English and mixes it with the movie people.

It's an extreme contrast and, as director Darlene Johnson shows us in One Red Blood, straddling such different worlds has sometimes been tough for Gulpilil.

Johnson, an Aborigine from northern New South Wales, met Gulpilil on the set of Rabbit-Proof Fence, in which he played a tracker searching for three children who have escaped from a mission.

The first thing that struck her about the ``iconic" Aboriginal actor was his resilience. When Gulpilil suggested she make a film about his life, she couldn't believe it hadn't been done.

``My initial reaction was: `How come this hasn't been done?'," Johnson says. ``It's very hard to contain everything about his life in 52 minutes. He's such an amazing person and he's lived an incredible life and done so much and he's survived it to tell the story."

When Gulpilil was 15, he was spotted by English director Nicolas Roeg, who was visiting Arnhem Land on a scouting mission for his 1970 film Walkabout. Gulpilil was chosen for one of the film's lead roles and with Walkabout's success was flung into the spotlight.

News footage from the time shows the teenage Gulpilil looking awkward in a suit as he flies to England for red-carpet premieres and parties with stars, including the late John Lennon.

Talking about that time now, Gulpilil's first memory is not of the red carpets. ``I couldn't even speak English. All the reporters came and asked me questions and I couldn't talk to them. I cried and cried."

Through interviews with actor Jack Thompson, Aboriginal activist Gary Foley and others, One Red Blood builds a sense of Gulpilil's pioneering achievements and their importance to the indigenous community. Film critic David Stratton describes the social climate of Australia in the late 1960s, when films were being made starring white actors with blackened faces playing Aborigines.

Speaking from the Northern Territory, Gulpilil says he is happy with what he has seen of the documentary and its depiction of his ``two realities".

``I say I live with knife and fork, spear and woomera. It means I live in the traditional way - it's in my heart, in my blood - and I live in the Western way. I grew up in Australia in the missions," he says.

Gulpilil looks forward to another film role and hankers to play a lead. He says the portrayal of Aborigines in films is ``slowly getting better".

``I enjoy working with the film crews - good food, they look after me a lot - and then we leave and I go home and they go home. When I go back home, I just go out, I go out hunting and fishing, I walk around in paradise."

But as we see in One Red Blood, Gulpilil feels some bitterness towards the film industry, which he believes has not always fairly rewarded him for his work.

Johnson says that after his role in Crocodile Dundee, Gulpilil was disappointed not to receive the recognition and financial reward given to other cast members. While the film made millions, he was reportedly paid a $10,000 flat fee.

In One Red Blood he says, ``these two worlds have also spoilt me".

But with Gulpilil tipped by critics as a favourite to win an Australian Film Institute award on Saturday night - he's nominated twice, as best supporting actor for his performance in Rabbit-Proof Fence and as best actor for his work in The Tracker - he may soon get the recognition he feels he deserves.