Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Mar 03, 2022 10:13 pm 
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This film about the great aboriginal actor is a bit too much of a downer

I remember the film Ten Canoes (2006), a plunge into Australian aboriginal culture and life, narrated (in English, though the dialogue is all in Aboriginal language) by David Gulpilil. This most famous of the Aboriginal people to appear in film and a national figure from the age of 16 when NIcolas Roeg's Walkabout starring him brought international fame, Gulpilill was dying of lung cancer when this film about him was made. A lot of this film is about his cancer. He says he is walking over a long desert toward his end. We see him in his home with Mary Reefed, a lady caretaker who he says will be with him till he dies. The whole affair is clouded a bit by knowledge that Aboriginal culture forbids naming and depicting the recently dead (his Wikipedia biography tells us he passed away on November 29, 2021 at Murray Bridge, South Australia, Australia.

This film is full of the man's spirit, his colorful personality, and gives a sense of his varied talents. He says Roeg was looking for a boy who could throw a spear and dance and everyone pointed to him. He also paints and we glimpse his small, beautiful, traditional-style paintings. Wikipedia tells that many of his relatives are artists of various kinds. It also tells us that he was introduced to alcohol with Walkabout, soon after by Bob Marley to "ganja," and he tells the camera that he used "too much tobacco" all his life He is undergoing chemotherapy and says it feels like a bad hangover.

The film is impressionistic, even in its way poetic, which suits this man who was "a tribal boy," not Western, and learned English "by listening," and thrills in Walkabout by his lean strangeness, his wild dancing and his leaps. Though he was, sadly, a user, an alcoholic and a man of multiple troubles with drunken violence involving women and children, he came into our white man's world as an etherial, magical being and a tribal boy who was a skilled tracker and hunter who grew up in the bush away from the white man.. He is to be celebrated as a very special figure of cinema and art.

Nonetheless one longs for a perfectly straightforward, linear documentary film that meticulously recounts Gulpilil's whole story, his film, his contribution to Australian culture. I would rather that than all the footage here of the aged, ill Gulpilil walking back and forth to collect his mail from the post box. Ultimately the constant present-time scenes depicting the gradual decline of the actor leads to that overwhelming everything else so that this film winds up being too much of a downer when it could have been a celebration of a flawed but brilliant, creative and light-hearted artist.

My Name Is Gulpilil, 101 mins., debuted at Adelaide and showed at a number of other Australian festivals in spring and summer of 2021. Screened for this review as part of the March edition of the 2022 San Francisco Mostly British festival.

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