The many faces of David Gulpilil

By Laleen Jayamanne
Gulpilil’s surrealist performances reveal our collective unconscious

David Gulpilil at the opening night of the Sydney Film Festival on June 8, 2016. (Photo by Brendon Thorne / Getty Images)

When I first saw David Gulpilil on screen in the 1970s, soon after I arrived in Australia, something about his presence was familiar to me, as though I’d seen him a long time ago. He looked like our indigenous people in the remote past of Ceylon or the fishermen in my grandfather’s village of the 1950s. Like Gulpilil, they had dark skin, and the relaxed movements of people used to doing skilled manual work under the sun; they wore loin cloths and had a distinct quality of walking, always barefooted, on the earth. Gulpilil helped me to imagine how the great human migration out of Africa, on foot, would have reached Australia through South Asia. Thinking about Gulpilil’s on-screen roles now, in the context of a visionary and multipronged global movement against institutional racism, there is for me a new sense of urgency to examining how he reveals the unconscious of our culture, how he takes us into dark places and times through his films.

In Baz Luhrmann’s Australia (2008), Gulpilil’s character is given several names – Gulapa, Grandfather, King George – indicating the multiple social and mythical types he embodies. Marcia Langton called this character “surreal”, an idea that captures something of the dream logic and heightened sense of artifice of Gulpilil’s performance, and of the cinematic image couture crafted by Luhrmann and his creative partner, Catherine Martin, in their globally marketable, camp-inflected Australian film brand Bazmark. Langton, a highly respected public intellectual, trained in anthropology and a professor of Australian Indigenous Studies, declared that Gulpilil’s performance was not a negative representation of an Indigenous elder, and that instead of taking offence at it we really ought to enjoy the thoughtfully crafted virtuoso performance in this unique Australian film.

Germaine Greer, mightily offended, attempted to counter Langton’s reading by citing chunks of Australian history to show how Luhrmann falsifies it. Greer got it spectacularly wrong, and Langton’s response was terse: “The film is a romance, not a documentary”. Greer also decried what she perceived to be a recycling of the worst forms of colonial, racist stereotyping in Gulpilil’s character. King George was “a cigar-store Indian, standing on one leg, the other foot propped against his knee, silhouetted against the skyline, spear and spear-thrower in hand”, according to Greer. “To the few viewers who will know that this motif has been used repeatedly as a trademark,” she said, “it does seem that Luhrmann is making a tasteless joke.” Yet others thought it was a replay of the melancholy image of the noble savage, invented by colonial anthropology to express what it saw as the “authentic” tribal man on the brink of extinction. It is worth noting that such criticism assumes that Gulpilil himself was complicit in his abjection – complicit in the model of alienated labour, the proletarianisation of the actor – and that he lacked all agency in the creative process. This is rarely the case with Gulpilil, except perhaps in his very first film, Walkabout, Nicolas Roeg’s 1971 classic. The following comical exchange is insightful about the complexity involved. 

David Gulpilil inside a movie theatre in Los Angeles with white fans, in 1979.
Fan: People here would like to know why at the end of Walkabout did you kill yourself?
Gulpilil: Oh yeah. I want to know too. I don’t know why. Um…
All laugh.
Fan: Is there an Aboriginal meaning behind that?
Gulpilil: No. No. Just a—
Fan: Just a part of the script, huh?
Gulpilil: It’s just part of the script. I didn’t speak English at that time.
Peals of laughter.

No doubt Greer would find it incomprehensible that a two-day interdisciplinary academic conference on Australia took place at the National Museum in Canberra, to explore and debate the film with its proceedings published in a scholarly journal. So, displacing Greer’s criticism, which many others shared, I would like to take up Langton’s idea of Gulpilil’s surreal persona and extend its implications further, in order to understand how Luhrmann collaborated with Gulpilil to tap his unique storytelling powers as dancer, hunter, painter and actor. In Australia, Luhrmann provides a fresh take on white colonial outback lore, Indigenous lore and history as story, especially as it relates to the issue of the Stolen Generations, miscegenation and Australia’s multicultural mix in the 1930s, leading up to and around World War Two, especially in the East Kimberley and the Top End. “Nine months after the apology to the Stolen Generations by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd,” Langton says, “I was thrilled with Luhrmann’s compassion and good humour, and his visionary way of overcoming the guilt complex that poisons our national debate.”

Luhrmann does not claim to represent the nation’s history authentically, as some filmmakers have done, most famously D.W. Griffith in his 1915 Civil War film The Birth of a Nation, which presented the KKK as heroes saving the South and was screened at the White House for President Woodrow Wilson. (The film, which was used to recruit members for the clan, provoked a national civil-rights campaign by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, demanding censorship of the most egregiously racist sections, to no avail.) In contrast, and despite the provocative title, Luhrmann’s Australia is explicitly a yarn spun skilfully by a storyteller who embodies directing as a choreographic act. He weaves together motifs and clichés of Australian culture, selected from a large variety of archives on design, ethnography, fashion, history, literature, media and more. The spinning and weaving of lovingly chosen clichés display an attention to detail reminiscent of the couture finish for which Catherine Martin is famous. Luhrmann also combines the talents of an opera and musical stage director – it is a heady mix of skills for a storyteller’s toolkit.

It appears to me now that Gulpilil’s persona is surreal in the sense in which Langton defined his presence in Australia. She says of the character that “he subverts the idea of the lurking savage made famous in much colonial literature and, as the hunted and despised ritual leader, represents the power and fragility of Aboriginal religion and culture”. (It is worth remembering here, too, Gulpilil’s remarkable collaborations with Rolf de Heer, where the line between his personal life and film persona is blurred.) A body constructed on surreal principles is not constrained by the limitations of the organic “realist” body. Zombies, for example – those surreal creatures of the pop imagination – are present in Gulpilil’s final feature film, Cargo (2017), a post-apocalyptic horror in which he plays the archetypal role of tribal elder, one who protects his community by spearing a zombie.

But Gulpilil’s surreal cinematic persona has a different lineage. His techniques as a dancer and hunter were learned from childhood, and his mentors were not only elders who taught him to dance, but also animals and birds. As a dancer-actor, he can activate his muscle memory, enabling him to cross thresholds of awareness with ease, without the fear of losing control. Gulpilil offers viewers the rare gift of enabling us to sense these non-rational, psychosomatic processes. In what’s described as an “almost hallucinatory monologue” performed on ABC Radio in the 70s, Gulpilil tells listeners, in the softest of tones, the story of his tribe, comparing its structures with those of white culture, and questioning the lack of distribution of his films to Aboriginal communities. He is accompanied by the beat of clap sticks and varied birdsongs, including harsh cries, but his uncanny vocalisations are not imitations but Gulpilil becoming birdsong. And when he plays the didgeridoo, it feels like the song of the earth resonating within the depths of one’s body, making it vibrate.

In Australia, Luhrmann directs Gulpilil and Nicole Kidman using a form of film acting (combined at times with rapid editing, framing, lighting, and so on) that he had fine-tuned in Moulin Rouge. Luhrmann taps Gulpilil’s training as a dancer and hunter by elaborating a style of acting that I think of as “acting in strobe”, like when strobe lighting brilliantly focuses – for an instant or a certain duration – on the lineaments of a mythical and/or social type, a stereotype and even a new type.

Some national cinemas are rich in kinetically trained bodies like that of Gulpilil’s, and this characteristic is a prerequisite for acting in strobe. The economy of movement in such training makes the body highly sensitive to variations in rhythm, and these skills then imbue the body with tremendous powers of abstraction and metamorphosis. A spectacular recent example is on display in Ryan Coogler’s superhero movie, Black Panther, starring Michael B Jordan’s “angry black man” persona, Killmonger, who morphs into a flurry of diverse contemporary African-American types, stereotypes, archetypes and even new types. Though not a dancer, Jordan’s training as a boxer provides him with the kinetic prowess and elan essential to rapidly and imperceptibly move from one character type to another with virtuosity and flair, like Gulpilil. Precisely because of its mythical structure as a superhero film, Black Panther is able, like Australia, to focus imaginatively on the troubled, even traumatic, paternal legacy of black male children, and especially those of racially mixed parentage.

In Australia, Gulpilil’s acting in strobe brings forth several social types, archetypes and new types, such as the grandfather, the storyteller, the sorcerer, the warrior, the shaman, the prisoner, the hunter, the colonial subject, the first man, and the law man. There may be others that I was not able to perceive, but I will outline several of the personas Gulpilil embodies in the film, in order to show the startling variety of types he is able to produce through kinetic and dynamic modulations. But a word of caution is warranted. The chances are that if we have decided to loathe the film even before we have watched it the unannounced subtle shifts in movement, gesture posture and tone will not register.

The film opens with small silhouetted figures on the horizon against a brilliant setting sun, recalling the kind of image you might see in a child’s picture-book. An Indigenous grandfather (Gulpilil), with spear in hand, and his grandson (Brandon Walters as Nullah) are seated together in a vast, open landscape. Nullah is the mixed-raced child of an Aboriginal woman and a white station manager. The persona Gulpilil plays here is also mixed, not biologically, but rather through aesthetic artifice, which the term “surreal” captures well. The grandfather, as a custodian of traditional stories, hands down the vital task of storytelling to the young boy and, in doing so, authorises Nullah’s role as a storyteller, which the viewer witnesses through an intermittent voice-over. This intergenerational transmission of knowledge as story continues at the magical scene at the billabong, where the grandfather – who is also a gulapa, a magic man – teaches his grandson the power of song to not only lure fish but also to disperse fear. Through song the external world is thereby folded within to create a rich sense of subjectivity for the child.

(In this rare sequence, learning becomes an enchanting experience for Nullah, and I do wonder if many children saw this film. In contrast, African-American kids saw Black Panther in droves; celebrities even bought out all the tickets to some screenings in the South and in Harlem so that children could see the film for free. There was a joyous intensity to the public reception of Black Panther that could be seen in the carnival atmosphere that permeated black communities and scholarly roundtables alike. The phrase “Wakanda forever” entered the vernacular, while Australia’s “Faraway Downs” was registered as an embarrassment.)

The sweeping movements of the camera capture Gulpilil’s King George, a sorcerer and warrior from Arnhem Land, lit by a fire, communing with the cosmos from his eyrie, and chanting under a starry sky. His reverberating chanting reaches Lady Sarah Ashley (Nicole Kidman), newly arrived from England, who is spending her first uneasy night at a mythical homestead called Faraway Downs. Later he appears as an apparition in a salt plain, guiding the lost drovers across the Never Never on songlines. He stands there, powerfully poised on one leg, in an iconic pose, body-painted and, through a combination of rapid jump-cut dance moves, he appears as a mystical shamanic archetype, not a character anchored in real space and time.

When a posse arrests King George, throwing him in the Darwin jail for a crime he didn’t commit, he evokes and condenses, in an instant, the long history of over-incarceration of Aboriginal people. His image is no longer beautifully crafted, with traditional costumes and ornaments as before. When we see him holding prison bars, looking out of a cell with a slop pail, he is denuded, reduced to bare life. He was Gulapa, Grandfather, King George, but his surrealist affiliations enable us to see, in an instant, that he is now an archetypal prisoner – one who incarnates in his body a violent and racist history. Even though he is placed in an abject situation, he starts chanting while touching the concrete wall with his hand, recalling the stone walls imprinted with hands in prehistoric caves. His chanting magically reaches Nullah, who has meanwhile been abducted by the police to be placed in a state institution. Here again, by acting in strobe, combining a precise economy of movement and stillness, Gulpilil condenses and focuses pre-history in flashes of clarity.

In the ensuing chaos of the Japanese bombing of Darwin, King George steps out of prison, a slender figure in a loincloth, walking barefooted on a metallic earth, with the lightest of steps. The camera spins around him deliriously as he looks up at the plumes of smoke and fire bursting out in the sky. Captured in a mid close-up, King George becomes the emblematic archetype of the species Human (from the Latin word humus, meaning “earth”), encountering the most advanced 20th-century technologies of mass destruction. He appears to be the calm, observing presence, while all else explodes around and above him. Soon after, King George becomes a hunter, using a metal rod as an improvised spear to kill Nullah’s wicked white father before he, the father, can kill his own unwanted and despised child.

In the final scene of the film, when Lady Sarah and Nullah – now her adopted son – stand closely together in a grass field, King George appears again, this time in beautifully crafted clothing and adornment. Embodying the roles of grandfather and of a ritual law man, he is smiling and inviting Nullah, his grandson, to come with him to learn lore on country. But when he turns around, looking directly at the camera,  and says, “our country”, I feel it’s David Gulpilil, national icon, who is welcoming me to feel at home in this foreign country. The happy ending of Australia is accompanied by one of Elgar’s Enigma Variations called “Nimrod”, written as a tribute to the composer’s close friend August Jaeger, a German-born musician described as a man of frail health and great soul. “Jaeger” means hunter in German and in Genesis 10, Nimrod is described as the “mighty hunter”. Luhrmann seems to suggest that the very English Elgar, popularly associated with the British Empire, is here paying tribute to another mighty hunter, Gulpilil’s King George.

Gulpilil’s acting in strobe – in Australia as well as in many of his other roles – stimulates our minds to make strange connections. Immersed in this process, connections proliferate. Images from his other films and from history flit by automatically at high speed, and this process is quickened by what’s happening now in the global politics of race relations. So in what follows I want to capture a few of these images as they rush by, without wholly submitting to the caprice of free association.

Jimmy’s body hangs from a rope tied to a tree by a roadside in Ivan Sen’s 2016 film Goldstone. Nothing Gulpilil has ever performed seems to have prepared us quite for the brutality of this image. Yet it evokes the final image of Gulpilil as a young boy in Walkabout, in which his body is propped up in a tree, with his arms wrapped around two branches, his head rolling to one the side, and his face down, feet dangling in the air like the mangoes on that very tree. Was Sen thinking of this scene when he wrote Goldstone? It’s almost better not to know, to imagine there is something chance-like in the repetition of his death in the more recent film, nearly 50 years after the beginning of Gulpilil’s career. In dying, he becomes an allegorical emblem, a corpse, signifying the snuffing out not only of ebullient, youthful promise but also the utter societal disregard for the incalculable value of Indigenous knowledge, such as that encoded in the body and spirit of David Gulpilil as Jimmy.

The younger Gulpilil’s portrayal of death fulfills, according to Langton, the Social Darwinist idea that Indigenous people would not survive first contact. But Jimmy’s death by hanging (reminiscent of Jim Crow lynchings in the US), works differently in this penultimate film of Gulpilil’s, prior to his retirement due to ill health. There is a sense of culmination in the collaboration between Australia’s most celebrated Indigenous actor and its rare poetic filmmaker, Ivan Sen, in Goldstone.

The lingering camera, showing us Gulpilil–Jimmy’s body both from the back and the front, admonishes us to reflect on his corpse. And then, why is it a hanging death (rather than say with a gun), making it a public spectacle? For whom, one wonders? This death by hanging appears to jump out of the frame, connecting obliquely (despite its different sociopolitical context) with the long history of American lynching recorded in black-and-white photographs so present now in the media. Even knowing later how and why Jimmy died does not cancel out the image’s cinematic power to superimpose and evoke the other.

Jimmy’s corpse, dangling from a tree, seems to issue a warning, not only to Detective Jay Swan who stands beside it, devastated. This corpse, received as an allegorical emblem, comes with the injunction, “Read me”. But maybe by talking about it within the current political context, without guilt or fear (the fear I feel as an outsider, of making mistakes in writing this), we might be able to begin to understand the nature of that warning. It was Gulpilil who said, “I want people to know. I want people to understand”. 

Laleen Jayamanne

Laleen Jayamanne taught cinema studies at the University of Sydney between 1990 and 2014. She wrote “A Sri Lankan reading of Tracey Moffatt’s Night Cries” in 1991 and has written on Ryan Coogler’s blockbuster Black Panther.

David Gulpilil at the opening night of the Sydney Film Festival on June 8, 2016. (Photo by Brendon Thorne / Getty Images)

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