David Gulpilil’s Influence on the Cinematic Representation of Indigenous Australians

Header Image by Jon Lewis

I want to do something not only for me but I’m doing it for Australia and for my people and for our culture… I’m doing it for black and white to know better that we have culture and history still existent and I’ll keep trying – David Gulpilil (NFSA 1979).

David Gulpilil is a name synonymous with Aboriginal culture in Australian film, and a household name in Australia. From his film debut in Walkabout (1971), Gulpilil began to shape the perception of Indigenous Australian culture and continued to make an impact on Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians alike. This essay will argue that David Gulpilil, throughout his 40-year career, has helped bridge a gap of understanding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians by humanising the representation of Indigenous Australians and their culture in film. This essay will examine Gulpilil’s ability to share and humanise the oppressed Aboriginal voice through his characterisation of Indigenous Australians in film. Secondly, Gulpilil’s influence on how Indigenous Australians are represented in films today contrasted to early Australian films. Lastly, how Gulpilil has created an intercultural dialogue that invites all audiences to participate in his storytelling.

In his film debut, David Gulpilil played a lead role as an unnamed black boy in the critically acclaimed Walkabout. From his beginnings as the noble savage in Walkabout, Gulpilil has gone on to play more nuanced and realistic portrayals of Indigenous Australians (McNiven 2017) in such films as Storm Boy (1976), Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002), The Tracker (2002) and Charlie’s Country (2013). In addition to his humanistic portrayals of Aboriginals, Gulpilil injects humour into many roles that not only reflects Aboriginal humour but mirrors the Australian sense of humour in that it is self-deprecating, mocking and anti-authoritarian. French (2014) states that humour helps people face serious issues, especially for those that have been oppressed. Humour is a critical step in creating a bridge between cultures, this is also true for Australians known for their unique sense of humour. Gulpilil’s use of humour in his portrayal of Aboriginals in such films as Storm Boy, Crocodile Dundee (1986) and to a darker extent Charlie’s Country, brings a strong human quality that translates across cultures. The depth of character and humour Gulpilil brings to each role allows the audience to empathise and relate to the character onscreen. This engages the audience so that they can understand and humanise Aboriginal culture, therefore breaking derogatory stereotypes and bridging a gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Secondly, while earlier film portrayals of Indigenous Australians lack multi-dimensional characters, David Gulpilil’s humour and humanisation of Indigenous Australians creates relatable characters that have created more opportunities for dynamic and realistic portrayals of Aboriginal culture in Australian film. Hickling-Hudson (1990) succinctly defines early (specifically 1950-1980) portrayals of Indigenous Australians in film:

The whites… are the dramatic subjects, their personalities explored, their reactions, attitudes, and feelings the focus of the narrative. The blacks are the objects which affect the white world, representing a barrier to be overcome.

The portrayal of Aboriginal characters in this period focuses on uncivilised and mysterious savages roaming the countryside; attempts to introduce stronger Indigenous characters fail with old prejudices. Such as in Bitter Springs (1950) in which race relations are questioned but Aboriginals are an obstacle to be overcome by the white family, and Jedda (1955) in which assimilation is questioned but blackface is used and the Aboriginal leads are dubbed to sound English (assimilated). These films provide a ‘white perspective’ (Hickling-Hudson 1990) on who Aboriginal people are; this characterisation prevented non-Indigenous Australians from seeing Aboriginals as human-beings and understanding their culture. Gulpilil separates himself from these characterisations by giving his characters a humanity and depth, regardless of who has written or directed the film, and is adamant to tell the story of his people. Film plays a significant part in an audience’s perception of the world they live in and in the ‘manufacturing of reality’ (Rekhari 2008), affecting the audience’s culture and everyday life. Therefore, Gulpilil’s influence over the representation of Aboriginal culture in film has created opportunities for other Indigenous Australians while giving non-Indigenous Australians a new and realistic perspective of who Indigenous Australians are.

Finally, David Gulpilil has used his passion, craft and relationships with Australian filmmakers, such as Rolf De Heer, to engage in a dialogue with Aboriginal and white Australian audiences. This is most evident in Ten Canoes (2006) and Another Country (2015), where two critical themes are introduced to the audience as the film opens. In Ten Canoes, Gulpilil introduces the film:

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away… Nah, not like that, I’m only joking. But I am going to tell you a story. It’s not your story. It’s my story: a story like you’ve never seen before. (De Heer 2006)

This introduction immediately invites the audience to take part in the story of the Yolngu people, in a relatable and humorous way. Conversely, in Another Country Gulpilil says, ‘This film is more about you than me… it’s about what happened when my culture was interrupted by your culture’ (Reynolds 2015). This distinction is important for Gulpilil to engage in a dialogue with the audience and share his culture with the world; a culture that is ancient and rich, but that has been ‘interrupted’ by white culture. The striking opening narration from Gulpilil in both films entices the audience to join him on each journey examining a critical part of indigenous culture and history, my story (Indigenous culture) and our story (shared history).

In conclusion, this essay has explored David Gulpilil’s influence on the representation of Indigenous Australians in film. It has found, that through powerful, dynamic and often humorous characterisations of Indigenous Australians he has created characters the audience can relate to, that allows them to humanise Aboriginals and their culture. In addition, Gulpilil’s ability to humanise his characters and relate to the audience has helped break the stereotypes used in an earlier period of film to represent Aboriginals. Finally, Gulpilil uses these skills to start a dialogue between Aboriginal and white Australians by inviting all Australians to take part in his storytelling. David Gulpilil’s representation of Indigenous Australians, has shaped a realistic and human perception of Indigenous Australians, and created further understanding between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

I done a lot for the people, I done a lot for Australia, I done a lot for the outside world. Why? Because I got a culture and language. One Red Blood… I am here to share with you my culture and language. – David Gulpilil (NFSA 2002)

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