David Gulpilil: Profound legacy of a trailblazing Aboriginal actor

December 07, 2021
David Gulpilil's film career spanned 50 years.
David Gulpilil's film career spanned 50 years.

CANBERRA — One of Australia's greatest actors, David Gulpilil (Kingfisher) Ridjimiraril Dalaithngu, died last week aged 68, following a battle with lung cancer. In accordance with custom he will be returned to the place of his birth, known to Aboriginal people as his Country, for the ceremony.

The actor, dancer, storyteller, and cultural crusader was celebrated across the globe for his contribution to cinema and his role in improving representation of Indigenous peoples and culture.

A proud Yolŋu (Aboriginal group) man anchored in kinship, sharing and responsibility, he described his experience living in the two worlds of Yolŋu culture and the Western world of fame as: "Left side, my Country. Right side, white man's world."

Warning for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers: this article contains images of someone who has died. His family has given permission to use his name and image.

Born on his homeland of Marwuyu in Arnhem Land, the Northern Territory of the continent known as Australia, Gulpilil was from the Mandhalpuyngu clan. His name - his totem - Gulpilil represents the kingfisher.

Raised on Country following the Yolŋu knowledge system of connection and balance with the universe, he was a skilled hunter, tracker, musician, painter, ceremonial dancer and trustee of cultural structures and laws.

After the death of his mother and father he went to the Maningrida mission school. It was here that his phenomenal talent for ceremonial dancing was spotted by English film director Nicolas Roeg, who cast the teenager as a lead character in Walkabout (1971), a story acknowledging the role of Aboriginal man as the saviour of two white children stranded on foreign, black country.

Gulpilil's compelling performance was the first time in Australian film that an Aboriginal character was depicted as charismatic, powerful, and intrinsically sexy. He was miscredited in the credits as Gampilil.

The film flopped at the Australian box office but the elegance and raw masculinity of Gulpilil's performance made international headlines, and the film is now credited as 'one of the greats'.

In London on his way to Cannes to promote the film, Gulpilil gained notoriety for partying with John Lennon, performing on stage with Jimi Hendrix, trying marijuana for the first time with Bob Marley, and meeting Marlon Brando, Muhammad Ali, Bruce Lee, and the Queen.

Gulpilil's film career spanned over 50 years with award-winning performances in some of the most iconic and successful films in Australian cinema history including Storm Boy (1976), Mad Dog Morgan (1976), The Last Wave (1977), Crocodile Dundee (1986), The Tracker (2002), Rabbit Proof Fence (2002), The Proposition (2005), Ten Canoes (2006), Australia (2008), and Charlie's Country (2014).

Gulpilil recognised that the multi-dimensional power of the moving image to entertain and educate was akin to Yolŋu songspirals - their Buŋgul (cultural ceremonies), where language, sound and performance reveal complex stories of the Yolŋu's natural, cultural, and spiritual worlds.

He worked to create productions where the Yolŋu way of life - with its stories still captivating audiences after millennia - was centred in the narrative.

Pushing past the negative stereotypes and the trope of troublesome Blackfella, his perseverance in maintaining collaborations with film-makers has offered a way forward to decolonising Australian film, TV and documentary making. Just prior to his first appearance on the big screen, film-makers employed Asians, or white men in blackface, to play Aboriginal roles. Thirty years later, Gulpilil convinced film-maker Rolf de Heer to produce the Yolŋu story of Ten Canoes.

The low-budget multi-award-winning film was the first movie to be filmed entirely in an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language. Gulpilil, as the narrator, tells us: "It's a good story but you got to listen ey. Maybe you're like [the film's young character] Dayindi, maybe the story will teach you how to live proper way."

While Gulpilil was credited for co-writing the autobiographical stage production Gulpilil (Adelaide Arts Festival, 2004), it wasn't until Charlie's Country that he was credited as a co-screenwriter. And finally, he received his first credit as a co-producer for My Name is Gulpilil (2019) - his farewell documentary.

As Gulpilil's representation and recognition improved, the troubles of Western influence in his home Country intensified. Through his documentary Another Country (2015) he narrates his life from being a child on Country, to the arrival of the first white men - the ghosts.

When the missionaries arrived they showed his clan how to build houses, and the government built a school and a shop and corralled dozens of local clans into the one location. Here a policy of "self-determination" was replaced with the Northern Territory Intervention, one of most shameful human rights abuses in modern Australian history.

The intervention brought in white well-paid workers who took over building the houses and introduced a "basics card" that controlled how the Yolŋu could spend their money. If the barge was delayed by weather, they went without fresh food and sometimes electricity. No electricity: no lights and no TV; but as much soft drink, junk food and toy guns as they could ever want.

He continues to narrate: "Before the government bans on alcohol, nearly no-one had been to jail, but now the government have built a $25m police and law centre." With the charismatic flair that soothes a burning rage, Gulpilil laughs: "Pretty soon the whole town will be in jail."

In 2019 David Gulpilil Ridjimiraril Dalaithngu AM received the NAIDOC Lifetime Achievement Award. This visionary with the mischievous smile that opened hearts; who harnessed the grace and physicality of a black Nureyev; and engendered a cross-cultural storytelling that was on par with Shakespeare - was most importantly, a generous, intelligent, dignified and highly respected Yolŋu Elder. His life and his legacy will continue in the songspirals. — BBC

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