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The Tracker, Ten Canoes and Charlie’s Country

Wednesday, 1 December 2021  | Katherine Rainger

Revisiting the collaborative works of David Dalaithngu and Rolf de Heer 

I got tears falling down, I been crying seeing that movie, it’s such a good movie. I’m proud of my people who are in that film, acting is beautiful, just perfect, everything, everybody is just great. It will hold them in the heart, the people who will see it, it’ll take you way down to the wilderness. (David Dalaithngu, Ten Canoes Press Kit)

Yolngu man David Gulpilil Ridjimiraril Dalaithngu, AM (commonly known as David Gulpilil), has had an enormous impact on Australian cinema over the past five decades. Dalaithngu’s on-screen presence and talent have captivated domestic and international audiences in films such as: Walkabout (Nicholas Roeg, 1971); the much-loved Storm Boy (Henri Safran, 1976), which Dalaithngu says is his favourite film; The Last Wave (Peter Weir, 1977); and Rabbit-Proof Fence (Phillip Noyce, 2002). His work has been instrumental in changing cinematic representations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples from generic, often racist and stereotypical depictions to characters with cultural agency and autonomy.

The focus of this review is Dalaithngu collaborative work with his friend, the director Rolf de Heer, including three films informally known as ‘the Accidental Trilogy’: The Tracker (2002), Ten Canoes (2006) and Charlie’s Country (2013). These films have much to teach us about relating with each other and with creation in the lands we now call Australia.

Filmed on Adnyamathanha country in the northern Flinders Ranges, The Tracker is as compelling now as it was when it was released in 2002. The film draws on the historical record while also containing a strong sense of allegory. Set in 1922, ‘somewhere in Australia’, The Tracker tells the story of an official police party in search of an Aboriginal man who has been accused of murder. Over six consecutive days and five nights, the dynamics between the four men in the police party — three white police officers (Gary Sweet, Damon Gameau and Grant Page) and their Aboriginal tracker (David Dalaithngu) — becomes the focus of the narrative. Growing tensions and dissension within the group sideline the hunt for the fugitive (Noel Wilton). The tension comes to a climax when, after two massacres of Aboriginal people, the tracker takes justice into his own hands.

The Tracker contains an evocative soundtrack sung by Bundjalung man Archie Roach. The soundtrack is an invitation to lament the past and also an invitation for contrition and burden-sharing in the present. The Tracker uses story, image and sound to make a cinematic contribution to truth-telling about Australia’s history — a task that remains unfinished.

Recent cinematic contributions to the task of truth-telling include Sweet Country (Warwick Thornton, 2017), a film that combines narrative with a desire to confront Australia’s history, and the documentaries The Australian Dream (Daniel Gordon, 2019) and The Final Quarter (Ian Darling, 2019), which feature the story of Adnyamathanha man and AFL legend Adam Goodes. They provide an incisive commentary on Australia’s history and the ongoing prevalence of racism.

After filming The Tracker, Dalaithngu invited de Heer to visit his country in Arnhem Land to make a film together. The result of this invitation is the majestic Ten Canoes (released in 2006). Ten Canoes became a collaborative project between de Heer and the community at Ramingining, including co-director Peter Djiggir.

Set prior to European contact, Ten Canoes contains three levels of integrated story-telling characterised by the invitation of the Storyteller and the parallel lives of two groups of ancestors depicted in black and white and rich colour. One version of the film was made entirely in Yolngu Matha languages. The theatrical release version contains English narration and sub-titles for the Yolngu Matha dialogue contained in the film. For non-Yolngu audiences an invitation is issued to participate as guests in the film’s world through the patient instruction of the Storyteller (David Dalaithngu). The opening scene contains the following words spoken by the Storyteller:

It’s not your story ... it’s my story ... a story like you never seen before. But you want a proper story, eh? Then I must tell you some things ... of my people, and my land ... Then you can see this story, and know it.

Viewers are invited to hear a story of creation that is inherently connected with a particular place, the Arafura Swamp, and the Yolngu people who are connected with the land, animals and waterways through ancestors, kinship, language and story.

The recent film Top End Wedding (Wayne Blair, 2019) is also a beautiful mediation of the connection between people and place set in Darwin, Katherine and the Tiwi Islands, albeit with a bit of ‘bridesmaid humour’ thrown in — although Ten Canoes also contains its fair share of bawdy humour in order to further connect viewers with the lives of the ancestors!

The final and most recent film in the Accidental Trilogy is Charlie’s Country, released in 2013. Charlie’s Country depicts the ongoing effects of colonisation in Australia, including the Northern Territory Intervention legislation (re-packaged as Stronger Futures). The viewer accompanies Charlie in his everyday interactions with family and friends and bureaucratic representatives in his remote community and in Darwin. One-third of the film is set in the bush. This is a time of joy for Charlie, which is unfortunately cut short due to unforeseen circumstances.

Charlie’s Country is a film about belonging, connection and disconnection between people and place. In some ways it connects with Dalaithngu’s life off-screen where he has struggled to live between ‘two worlds’. Charlie’s Country was conceived in Berrimah gaol in Darwin when de Heer visited Dalaithngu who was serving a sentence for assault charges. When de Heer asked the question, ‘what do you want to do when you leave gaol?’, Dalaithngu replied ‘I want to make a film with you’. Together they wrote the script and recruited actors from Ten Canoes and other films that de Heer has worked on, as well as first time actors such as Jennifer Budukpuduk Gaykamangu who gives a compelling performance as Charlie’s friend, Faith.

Associated with Charlie’s Country, the documentaries Still Our Country (2014) and Another Country (2015), both directed by Molly Reynolds, are invitations by Yolngu people to learn about their culture and their land. Dalaithngu co-wrote Another Country (with Reynolds and de Heer) and his narration throughout tells part of the story of life in Ramingining in the past and present. Another Country includes a critique of missionaries and also footage of the Easter parade throughout the streets of Ramingining. Heavy rain and children doing backflips over puddles accompany the crowd as they follow Jesus on his walk to the cross. Dalaithngu reflects on the images shown:

It is Easter time. The crucifixion and the resurrection. Even in Ramingining ... My friend Dawu. He had a heart attack, in hospital he found God. Dawu is now organising the grand Easter parade. People get themselves ready in their own way. ... For this one day many of us are Christians, but what most of my people believe is not the same as what most white people believe. If we have a Jesus he is black. He’s not all-powerful from above. He’s not in charge of us. He’s one of us.

In July 2019 David Dalaithngu was awarded the NAIDOC Lifetime Achievement Award. In his poignant pre-recorded message he reflected on his life and career in acting and announced his retirement due to ill health. A unique figure on-screen and off-screen, David Dalaithngu is a gift to Australia and to Australian cinema. Through his films he continues to make a mark. As he says about Ten Canoes: ‘That story is never finished, that Ten Canoes story, it goes on forever because it is a true story of our people, it is the heart of the land and people and nature’ (Ten Canoes Press Kit).


Katherine Rainger is a non-Indigenous priest in the Anglican Diocese of Canberra and Goulburn. She has recently submitted her doctoral thesis where she explored the collaborative works of David Dalaithngu and Rolf de Heer in dialogue with the theology of Willie James Jennings and Indigenous theologians such as Denise Champion, Terry LeBlanc, Graham Paulson and Djiniyini Gondarra.


Image: The late actor's family has granted permission to use the image used in this article.

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