Inside Story

How the world spins

Mark Baker recalls an encounter with David Gulpilil in 1998

Mark Baker 19 March 2021 1080 words

“Sometimes I feel like two people”: David Gulpilil in Ramingining in 1998. Michael Rayner

During a visit to Rome in the early 1970s, David Gulpilil went to see the martial arts hit Enter the Dragon and was delighted to discover that Walkabout, the movie that launched his own stellar acting career, was screening at the same cinema.

“When I walked out into the foyer, there was Bruce Lee,” Gulpilil recalled decades later, still shaking his head in astonishment. “He was watching my movie and I was watching his. It was a shock to meet each other, but we got a good photograph.”

Brushes with fame became almost commonplace in the early years after Walkabout told the story of the Australian landscape’s ancient mysteries and the collision of black and white cultures. The world opened up for the teenage actor and dancer from Arnhem Land whose haunting performance made the film an instant classic.

In America he rubbed shoulders with Clint Eastwood, John Lennon, Muhammad Ali and “that singer bloke” Bob Dylan. In Frankfurt he met Marlon Brando. And in London, dressed in a twenty-four-hour Hong Kong suit, he dined with and danced for the Queen. “That was great. The Queen of England was there. I was proud. Wow! I was among the stars. I was in all the newspapers.”

Walkabout was soon joined by a string of other memorable films that secured Gulpilil’s reputation as one of Australia’s greatest actors. Storm Boy, for which he won an Australian Film Institute best actor nomination, was followed by The Last Wave and the Crocodile Dundee blockbusters. (He says he was paid a derisory $10,000 for the latter, while the white stars pocketed millions.) Then, almost as suddenly as it had flowered, his brilliant career stalled.

By the late 1990s David Gulpilil was back where he had begun: broke, frustrated and living on the fringe. Largely forgotten by the world that had feted him, he was unsettled and struggling in the land of his people.

“I am sad and ashamed,” he said when we met in 1998 in the remote settlement of Ramingining, 500 kilometres east of Darwin, where he shared a makeshift camp with his large extended family. “Once I was famous, everybody knew my name. Now I’m just a simple man living down here in a humpy. It’s a hopeless life. Why do other people have apples and I have none? I don’t want my children to grow up like this.”

Gulpilil had travelled a path sadly familiar to many of Australia’s greatest Aboriginal artists and athletes: moments of triumph and acclaim overshadowed by bouts of alcoholism and drug abuse, broken relationships, and alienation from both the worlds they sought to straddle. He was jailed for a month in 1987 for drink-driving, and he blamed alcohol for the break-up of his first two marriages. And more trouble lay ahead, including domestic violence and offensive weapons incidents fuelled by alcohol, and more time in prison.

“Sometimes I feel like two people,” he lamented. “It would have been a different life if I had stayed here with my people, but I have grown up in the Western world because the film Walkabout took me away from here. Now I have come back, it is different.”

The frustrations were sharpened in the long months when he was forced to stay in the camp at Ramingining, cut off by wet-season flooding from his homelands just thirty kilometres away. It was the place where he found peace, hunting and fishing and teaching the young men the ceremonies and dances.

“My homeland is paradise. Here, I am trapped, but in my land I am free. I am not a foreigner there. In the land of my forefathers, in my mother’s land, I can sleep under the cool shadow of trees. Back there, all I have is my spear and my woomera. It’s all I need.”

But those years in Ramingining proved to be no more than an interval in a career that had yet to reach its peak. Soon he was back in demand and being celebrated for a contribution that transcended his screen roles. Rolf de Heer, who directed him in three of his best movies, credits Gulpilil with beginning “the process of white Australia looking at Indigenous people in a different way. When he did Storm Boy, the white people fell in love with him and Indigenous people could feel proud.”

He won a clutch of accolades in 2002, including the AFI best actor award for his performance in de Heer’s The Tracker and an AFI nomination for best supporting actor for Rabbit-Proof Fence. His collaboration with de Heer in Charlie’s Country was recognised in 2014 with a second best actor award from AACTA (successor to the AFI) and the same prize at the Cannes Film Festival.

Now David Gulpilil is dying. Diagnosed with lung cancer and emphysema in 2017, the doctors gave him six months to live. The treatments that helped him defy the odds are exhausted, and soon, he concedes, he will be “going back to country on a one-way ticket.”

As the end approaches, he remains a man torn between the celebrity of his life in the world of movies and the power of his tribal heritage.

Back in 1998 I asked what he would do differently if he had his time again. He reached out and touched my arm. “You have to help me with this,” he said, searching for words. “If I had another chance, I’d still do it all again, but this time maybe I could take my children to see and learn.

“I want to teach my children about the world and to bring a better life for them. My people don’t know about the world, how the world spins. They need to learn. We have to live in the bigger world. I want my children to know how to use the woomera and the spear and the knife and fork.”

In Molly Reynolds’s new documentary on his life, My Name Is Gulpilil, the actor, now living in Murray Bridge with his carer Mary, laments the fact that he is no longer well enough to travel back to Arnhem Land. “I will miss my children. I think of them and I love them… I’m only waiting. I’m walking like across the desert of country — long, long way — until the time comes for me.”

Soon enough he will be back there, a spirit that delighted and enlightened the world reunited with those of his ancestors. •