New York, NY —Feature films about indigenous people have been winning awards at film festivals over the last five years and are starting to become box office successes. The most recent of these was Whale Rider from New Zealand and Rabbit Proof Fence from Australia. Now there's a new movie The Tracker which takes place in Australian colonial history and stars a legendary Aboriginal actor: David Gulpilil. Judith Kampfner has the story.
Gulpilil: I don't know which I'm going to sing
Kampfner: When he sings he usually accompanies himself on the clapsticks but today, David Gulpilil, grand man of Australian aboriginal movie stars, sings a capella.
Kampfner: Australian indigenous people still gather around a campfire to tell stories. Each dance and each song has a story. This one's about a lyrebird. Each animal has a part in what's called The Dreamtime - the creation of the earth. Each person has a totemic spirit - David Gulpilil s is an eagle. His ancestral land is in Arnhem Land in the north east of Australia. He's brought a new way to they tell the stories and to get them out to the world.
Gulpilil: I'm teaching now the young ones to make film. we go out, we take cameras, we come back and edit them, we write stories and all that things - it's something to do with my people, I want to show them what I learned from the beginning.
Kampfner: Over a long career, David Gulpilil has appeared in Mad Dog Morgan with Dennis Hopper, The Last Wave with Richard Chamberlain, Paul Hogan's Crocodile Dundee and Philip Noyce's Rabbit Proof Fence . It began quite miraculously when word about his prowess at tribal dancing made it out from his remote community to British director Nicolas Roeg. So at the age of 16 in 1971, Gulpilil found himself in Walkabout . He thought that he'd be a cowboy riding over the desert like his favorite movie star John Wayne but discovered - he was asked to play himself.
Kampfner: White children who are stranded in the hostile outback come across an aboriginal boy who helps them to stay alive. Here, he spears a huge lizard for a frightened little boy in school cap and blazer.
Late in the film he does a courtship dance for the teenage white girl. Critics raved about his beauty, his athleticism his sexuality. He spoke no English in Walkabout because he knew no English at the time. Even today after thirty years of movie making, Gulpilil prefers physical expression to dialog.
Gulpilil: Word especially English sometime hard for me but I do it a lot with my eye and with my body movement that make me that
I m really performing it. I never get nervous, I never shame.
Kampfner: That's because he's tied to his culture and refuses to turn his back on it and won't do anything to compromise it. He still considers himself first and foremost a traditional dancer.
Gulpilil: I have to sing dance and do right dances and sing for right tribes - my mothers side Yerricha? And father's is Doorah?
Kampfner: There is no written aboriginal law but each clan has the rights to different dances and songs and Gulpilil always asks for the requisite permission because he's only been initiated into the rituals of his family. As the first Australian aboriginal actor in international cinema, he has set a good example at maintaining cultural authenticity says Faye Ginsburg, an anthropologist and filmmaker at NYU.
Ginsburg: David is a traditional aboriginal man and he recognizes that songs dance and language even are a form of cultural property that people have had delivered from ancestors and people have caretaking responsibilities towards them.
Kampfner: There's one role which he has been cast in many times and that's the role of the tracker which is also the title of his new film. But that's because historically that was the most common job for aboriginal men on the frontier in colonial Australia.
Ginsburg: You see David approaching the environment in these films - it appears magical because you can't imagine how in that barren environment, he is able to see traces of water and where people have been - so it appears to be a mystical or magical relationship.
Kampfner: It all appears so natural because - when Gulpilil isn't acting, his day job is tracking - on the northern tip of the continent far from the Australian film industry.
Gulpilil: My country is surrounded by rivers and swamps and Thousands and thousands of crocodiles I hunt and collect eggs...that's like a part time job.
Kampfner: Though he got to dance in Paul Hogan's film Crocodile Dundee, Gulpilil was not happy with his small role or the meager amount of money he earned according to filmmaker Darlene Johnson .She's just completed a documentary about Gulpilil's career. In her film she shows how although he catapulted into the limelight, having tea with the Queen and partying with John Lennon, he didn't become a rich movie star.
News clip Young aboriginal actor arrives in London en route to the Cannes film festival - official British entry
Johnson: Thirty years later look where he is now - he lives in a humpie - there is no running water and no electricity - I mean one of his dreams is to have a house and not to live in tin shed.
Kampfner: But in his last two films - Rabbit Proof Fence and The Tracker, directed by Rolf de Hoer, Gulpilil has had more artistic involvement and better pay. The Tracker has given him his first starring role ever. It also won him his first ever Australian Film Institute award for acting. He's on screen throughout the movie and you can't take your eyes off him says NYU's Faye Ginsburg
Ginsburg: He's compelling - he plays the part of the tracker with stoic grace - it's a part anyone can identify with
Kampfner: American audiences can get more easily involved in foreign movies about indigenous people than they can about Native American issues says Ginsburg. She points to films which have done well here like Atanarjuat , the Inuit movie and Whale Rider and Once we Were Warriors which are both about the Maoris in New Zealand.
Ginsburg: there s no guilt, the question of complicity isn't raised and it's exotic
Kampfner: Gulpilil is working on his own script which he will make next year. Darlene Johnson is planning to make a film about her mother and her Koorie - eastern aboriginal heritage. Though Gulpilil has been a great trailblazer, and though Rabbit Proof Fence had plucky little heroines, there's been a hex she says on Australian aboriginal women in the movies. And she intends to break that.
For WNYC, I'm Judith Kampfner.