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Australian actor David Gulpilil wins best actor award at Cannes Film Festival

Indigenous actor David Gulpilil has won a major award in Cannes for his role in Rolf de Heer's feature Charlie's Country.

Australian actor David Gulpilil has won a prize as best actor in Cannes for his charismatic performance in Rolf de Heer’s film Charlie’s Country. It was a crowning tribute to the actor, who first made his mark as the tracker in Nic Roeg’s Walkabout in 1971 and went on to work on films as varied as Storm Boy, Mad Dog Morgan and The Tracker, his first collaboration with De Heer.

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Trailer: Charlie's Country

Charlie is out of sorts. The intervention is making life more difficult on his remote community, so Charlie takes off, to live the old way.

The prize was awarded in the Un Certain Regard section of the festival, a parallel section to the main competition that emphasises individual points of view and innovative film-making.

Charlie’s Country follows Charlie, an ageing indigenous man living in a humpy who finds white men’s rules are making his life pointlessly difficult.

David Gulpilil as Charlie in a scene from Rolf de Heer's 'Charlie's Country'.
David Gulpilil as Charlie in a scene from Rolf de Heer's 'Charlie's Country'. Photo: Entertainment One

He goes bush to live in a more traditional way, but can’t live through the wet season; his sickness and consequent decline makes for harrowing viewing, but ends on a satisfying note of hope.

The film has been a success in Cannes both with the audience, who gave it a standing ovation at its gala screening, and with the trade press critics. In a first review from the screening at the Cannes film Festival, Variety described Gulpilil as “an actor capable of mischievousness and gravitas, often within the same shot”.

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Screen International said that “David Gulpilil crowns his career with a mesmeric portrait” while the Hollywood Reporter commented that “this eloquent drama's stirring soulfulness is laced with the sorrow of cultural dislocation but also with lovely ripples of humour and even joy … the film's observations about spiritual resilience in the face of white colonisation and irreconcilable societal imbalance enrich it with emotional universality”.

In an interview earlier this week, Rolf de Heer said that he had resolved to make the film when visiting Gulpilil in jail.

Charlie (David Gulpilil) goes bush to live in a more traditional way, but can’t get by through the wet season in ...
Charlie (David Gulpilil) goes bush to live in a more traditional way, but can’t get by through the wet season in 'Charlie's Country'. Photo: Entertainment One

Gulpilil, having gone through some experiences comparable to Charlie’s, told him the one thing he wanted to do was make another film with him. He hadn’t intended to make a film at the time, but thought that it might give Gulpilil some hope.

The two of them met for an hour a day to discuss ideas while De Heer wrote the script. “What I felt was that if we used things he recognised and could draw on easily, then a great performance from him was more likely. And because we were pegging it on Charlie’s character, his performance is everything.”