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David Gulpilil

david gulpilil
David Gulpilil, from the documentary 'Gulpilil: One Red Blood' (Darlene Johnson, 2002)

Reg Cribb is an award-winning Australian playwright, penning celebrated works including Last Train To Freo, The Return, Last Cab to Darwin, and Gulpilil - a one man show about the life of, and starring, David Gulpilil. Reg spent three weeks living with David Gulpilil in Central Arnhem Land preparing for the show. In this essay for ACMI he shares with us his experience with this extraordinary man.

If you asked most Australians where they think David Gulpilil, our most decorated indigenous performer, might live, most would probably shrug their shoulders and say: "I don't know ... Bondi maybe. Isn't that where all the other actors live?" David is in fact the link between our Westernised urban sprawl and a land and culture that is as old as time. He is one of the rare glimpses into a vanishing culture that he hugs as fiercely as we hug the bosom of our coastal cities. When you look into David's face you see the Arafura Swamp, the Glyde River, the oncoming Wet season and the steely Barru hunter preparing for an all night hunt so that he can feed his family. And when that face breaks into a broad grin you know that you are welcome on his land, but only if you respect it with your very soul.

  Walkabout, 1971
When one touches down in Raminginning, David's home in traditional Yolngu country, Central Arnhem Land, you are confronted with the reality of the day to day existence of a traditional community. Every step you take has to be monitored. There are no signs pointing out what is sacred ground and what is not. It is inferred knowledge. Stupid whitefellas are often caught out. One is woken most mornings by the sounds of ceremony and initiation, by the bullroarer and ancient chanting. The Yolngu men will have been dancing all night and David Gulpilil as a revered elder, tracker and lawman will have prepared for that ceremony all afternoon. His days will most likely be spent in a trance-like state, sleepless from the night's proceedings. In Arnhem Land, the power in the landscape can be felt as if he has summoned it up for you from the very earth.

Mandhalpingu is his Father's language. His Mother's is Ganalbingu. But David speaks no less than 14 languages - maybe more. Dabi, djinang, wulaki, djambarrpuyngu, gupapuyngu - to name a few.

Being a celebrated movie star is but one aspect of David's life. In Ramingining, far from the glare of the camera, he is mostly concerned with the machinations of survival, as are most of his people. Most vehicles in the town have to be towed or push started, fresh food is a pipe dream (bush tucker is a better and healthier option), petrol and groceries cost double the city prices, and no destination deemed necessary can be reached without at least two and a half hours of spine mulching cross country travel in a vehicle that is really just four wheels on a chassis.

And if you reach your destination without getting bogged or running out of fuel, you better hope that David has prayed hard to the spirit of his parents
dark age
Dark Age, 1986
so that you catch a bloody croc. Otherwise everyone is going hungry the next day. And if you manage to spear one through the head after being out on the mosquito infested Glyde River for five hours, you better hope that David and the rest of his mob don't put a nick in the hide after skinning it for three hours otherwise there'll be no money for the skin and the whole nights work has turned to shit. His relationship with the crocodile is complex. David is the child of the crocodile, which in turn is his mother's dreaming.

The battle to keep your head above water in this land doesn't let up, but the Yolngu people manage it with a calm resolve and incredible grace. If they run out of fuel ... then they just walk. For days if they have to. There was a time when the land was bounteous and they lived as one with it, but two centuries of hard fought battles against Balanda (Whitefella) infiltration has left the country and the Yolngu exhausted and scarred. At least they own it now. The contrast between the hope contained in this traditional community and the feeling of hoplessness in some of the communities in the Pilbara and Cape York regions, riddled by alcoholism and domestic violence, couldn't be more pronounced.

  storm boy
  With Mike Kingsley in 'Storm Boy', 1976
The outside world, however, is not aware of this aspect of David Gulpilil's life. To most of us he is the wise black sprite from Storm Boy; or the funny bugger urban blackfella, Neville Bell - Mick Dundee's mate; or the tragic young, lovelorn saviour from Walkabout. But David's real story is far more interesting than any character that he has wonderfully fleshed out for the screen. In fact his performances are realised so beautifully because of this reason. David Gulipilil the screen presence can never be distinguished from David Gulpilil the man. They are one and the same, forged by the same spirit, possessed by the same demons. The Marwu man caught between two worlds and the endless battle to find his way in both of them. The glitzy lures of our world have at times decimated him of his traditional responsibilities. He has been viewed with suspicion and fear by his own people for becoming a 'spoilt' blackfella and our film industry has at times treated his culture and wisdom carelessly and left him wondering what, at the end of the day, does he have to give back to his own people? David's story, in many ways, is the Aboriginal story.

the last wave
The Last Wave, 1977
And then there is always the sheer magnitude and brutal rawness of his talent. There is not a boring moment recorded of David on film. The camera loves him. The camera respects him and his gravitas is etched onto its lens. He was a film actor before he could speak a word of our language, before he had ever seen a slate or a camera. His mere presence and attachment to the land ensured that we would never be able to take our eyes off him on the big screen. He moves across a landscape like he has always belonged there.

David's finest moments on film are many and varied. Some of his best moments have usually come at the expense of a hapless whitefella. His cheeky maniacal laugh at the efforts of the two young schoolchildren to find water in Walkabout, Fingerbone Bill's steely but graceful stride through the reeds of the Coorong with an eager Greg Rowe in tow in Storm Boy, and him standing in the rain waiting patiently for the understanding of a scared and dubious Richard Chamberlain in The Last Wave - to name but a few. Be afraid for those performers who have to stand next to Gulpilil in a scene. He acts the proverbial pants off them by doing absolutely nothing. The best film actors all have this rare quality.

And then there are the stories behind the stories.
  the tracker
  The Tracker, 2002
His discovery by Nicholas Roeg as a traditional dancer who couldn't utter a syllable of English, his rocketing to stardom after the success of Walkabout, his subsequent visit to England for the Cannes Film Festival where he met the Queen and John Lennon, his time looking after an out of control and frequently incarcerated Dennis Hopper on the set of Mad Dog Morgan, and his well deserved and long overdue AFI award for The Tracker.

David's story is big, it's complex, it's unattainable. It has no discernible timeline. It swerves and diverts like an emu tearing across the plain. His philosophy is etched in his heart but sits in the dirt under your feet. It's the scariest of rides for a whitefella and makes you yearn to touch the ground the way that he does and stop walking six feet above it. The beautiful thing however, is that we can all celebrate and admire his film work and indispensible contribution to the Australian film canon. And that is what we are here to do. Enjoy fullah!

Reg Cribb 2008

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