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By Annabel Brady-BrownPosted Wed 26 May 2021 at 4:37amWednesday 26 May 2021 at 4:37am, updated Wed 26 May 2021 at 3:42pmWednesday 26 May 2021 at 3:42pm
In early 2017, when the legendary actor David Gulpilil was diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer and advised that he had only months to live, he told filmmakers Molly Reynolds and Rolf de Heer that he wanted to make one more film.
He wasn’t well enough to appear as planned in Stephen Maxwell Johnson’s revisionary western, High Ground — he requested that his role be taken by Yothu Yindi’s Witiyana Marika, who is a close relative.
But the three decided “that the best way we could go forward was to do his life story, right until the end,” Reynolds says.
The result is My Name is Gulpilil, an intimate documentary about the actor squaring with the end of his life.
“This film is about me. This is my story of my story,” he says at the outset.
Moving between hospital visits and scenic excursions through the South Australian landscape, the film interweaves footage of Gulpilil speaking direct-to-camera with news archives and clips from his movies, reliving his astonishing half-century on screen.
“I like to show my face to remember,” he says.
Viewers are taken on a bittersweet journey — from his debut in the 1971 Australian New Wave classic Walkabout, through some of the country’s most popular and critically acclaimed films, including Storm Boy, Mad Dog Morgan, Crocodile Dundee and Rabbit Proof Fence.
Refreshingly, the movie clips are presented without title cards that name the directors, as the documentary instead homes in on Gulpilil’s magnetic performances.
‘I’m an actor, I’m a dancer, I’m a singer and also a painter.’
My Name is Gulpilil is likely the final entry in a fruitful, two-decade collaboration between Gulpilil and the white Australian filmmaker Rolf de Heer and his partner Reynolds, which started with the Yolngu actor’s phenomenal lead role — his first — in The Tracker in 2002.
Over the four films they’ve made since then — which are widely held up as examples of best-practice collaborative filmmaking — Gulpilil has increasingly asserted creative control over his story.
He initiated and narrated Ten Canoes (2006) — the first Australian feature entirely in Indigenous language — and co-wrote and starred in the semi-autobiographical drama Charlie’s Country (2013) and the follow-up essay-documentary Another Country (2015).
It’s fitting, then, that My Name is Gulpilil sees him occupy centre stage.
“It’s like, ‘Over to you, David,'” says Reynolds, who directed the film.
“It’s a fabulous progression, for all of us really.”
Reminiscing direct to camera, Gulpilil recounts his youth as a tribal man from the Arafura Swamp region in Central Arnhem Land, and how it was his talent as a ceremonial dancer that led the British director Nicolas Roeg to “discover” him as a teen and cast him in the biblical desert horror Walkabout.
The experience ignited Gulpilil’s love for cinema and his abiding diva-like delight in front of the camera.
As he said in his 2004 one-man stage show, “Acting came natural to me. Piece of piss. I know how to walk across the land in front of a camera, because I belong there.”
Walkabout toured the world, which took the Yolngu teenager out of his ancestral home and catapulted him into the European film world — and Hollywood-level excess.
He amusingly relates some of his adventures: dining with the Queen, carousing with Dennis Hopper, partying with Muhammad Ali and getting high for the first time with Bob Marley. It was the start of a lifelong balancing act for Gulpilil — straddling two worlds, Yolngu and Balanda — and the documentary emphasises the great personal toll this took.
He’s sober these days, but he speaks openly about his well-publicised substance abuse and his time living in the long grass in Darwin.
“Drinking all this grog, smoking all this tobacco, smoking all this ganja. I ended up good in prison every day in Darwin,” he says.
The film uses audio clips from news reports that run through his numerous convictions, including one for domestic violence in 2011, after he broke his wife’s arm.
“I forgot about her,” he says. “Because I was a drunken, drunken man.
“I’m a drug and alcoholic.”
‘No one else can do the life of me, it’s only me. I can do the life about me.’
Unlike other biographic treatments, such as Darlene Johnson’s 2002 documentary Gulpilil: One Red Blood, or Derek Rielly’s 2020 book Gulpilil, there are no other interviewees or talking heads.
“People, usually whitefellas, sort of speak for or about David,’ says Reynolds, explaining the reasoning behind the “clear choices” that she and David made about how to present the documentary.
“David is the consummate performer, the consummate artist, actor. I thought, ‘What happens if he just spoke for himself?’
“I knew David’s capacity to deliver. I thought, ‘He can hold the screen,'” she says.
“David really embraced that, because there were no intermediaries at all. He could just look straight down the lens, and speak it as he saw it.
“Having said that, he’s also an actor and he likes having a director to support his work.”
Needing to stay close to doctors and hospitals, and too sick to travel to Arnhem Land, Gulpilil is observed living in a modest house — kitted out with posters of his films — in Murray Bridge, east of Adelaide, with his indefatigable carer Mary Hood.
Before each shooting session, Reynolds and Gulpilil would discuss what he wanted to talk about that day.
“I quickly learned to be a different director to what I’d normally be,” she says, describing her role as “sort of the brains trust who holds the information”.
“I was there to support his performance, even though his performance was really him.”
The interviews would run for hours.
“Then he’d just conclude somehow so poetically, and ‘boom’, we’ve got it.”
Tying the film together into effectively one long interview, the unhurried monologues allow the viewer to really listen, and to sink into the rhythm of Gulpilil’s storytelling.
‘I like to make a film, it’s a history. I like it because it won’t rub out.’
Gulpilil’s role extended far beyond being the star interviewee.
“One day he called me up,” recounts Reynolds. “‘Molly, Molly,’ he said. ‘What I’d like to do is, I want you to wrap me in our film, in my cemetery box.'”
She had to break the news to him: “David, we’re shooting digital, not 35mm … but I got the image he was evoking, and that was really poetic, so we did end up shooting it,” she says.
The shot shows Gulpilil lying inside a coffin with his eyes closed, resting on a bed of unfurled analogue film – one of several dreamy images that appear in the documentary to suggest he is confronting his own mortality, and which often foreground his connection with the land.
“He’s got a true sense of cinema,” says Reynolds.
The new film sees Gulpilil credited for the first time in his career as a producer — alongside de Heer and his Ten Canoes co-director Peter Djigirr.
Reynolds describes Djigirr as “critical to everything we do with the Yolngu mob up there… He’s been involved in every single film we’ve made in Ramingining.”
Acting as a kind of “pivot point” between the filmmakers and the community, Djigirr also ensured that everything was done in accord with cultural protocols and traditions.
There was another crucial, if sombre, reason for his involvement, says Reynolds: “There was the expectation that David would be dead by the time we finished. So we wanted someone who … would be able to look at the film and determine how David would feel about it.”
That Gulpilil is still alive to see the finished film, walking the red carpet at the Adelaide Festival for the premiere in March, is a surprise twist ending.
“It felt so right that it worked out this way,” says Reynolds.
“One thing that pleases me about the film, for David, is that I think it has cemented his legacy,” she says.
“It’s the culmination of all that he has done.”
‘This film will remember to generation to generation.’
In 2002, academic and cultural commentator Marcia Langton said: “David has been absolutely critical to both representing Aboriginal people in modern Australia in the cinema … and also, in his own ironic and charismatic way, undermining the stereotypes that were forced on him. He’s a tremendously important person to us culturally.”
Reflecting on this important role, Reynolds says, “I don’t think Australia yet appreciates [David’s contribution] enough.”
“And I really, really do hope that, on behalf of all of us, whitefellas and blackfellas alike, that we do get to that point.
“My Name Is Gulpilil may just be a reference to help us get there.”https://www.youtube.com/embed/vK1DLvEkvtA?feature=oembedYOUTUBEMy Name is Gulpilil trailer