In June, 2006, after we'd returned from the screening of the film Ten Canoes at the Cannes International Film Festival, I rang around Ramingining in remote North Central Arnhem Land to track down my co-director, Peter Djigirr. I wanted to explain that he had won an award, a Deadly, at the National Indigenous Music, Sport, Entertainment and Community Awards, and was expected to go to Sydney to receive it.
When I finally found him, the conversation went something like this:
"Djigirr! You've won an award!"
"Right ... what's that thing?"
"Like a prize."
"You know, recognition for doing good with the film."
"Oh, yeah ... a prize." Djigirr pauses. "Any money?"
"No, no money, just the award."
"No money! What is it then?"
"Er, not sure about this one. Probably a piece of plastic."
There's a long pause. "Plastic?"
"Yeah, like a statue or something."
"Ahh ... What do I do with it?"
"Take it home, put it on a shelf."
There's another pause, as Djigirr tries to digest the lunacy of everything that I'm saying. "I haven't got a shelf."
Within six months, though, things had changed. Djigirr, along with Frances Djulibing, the lead female actor, and Richard Birrinbirrin, the associate producer and actor, were representing the Ramingining mob at the Australian Film Institute Awards. They knew that all that was on offer, in a physical sense, were pieces of plastic, but they appreciated the significance of the occasion. They were nervous, not so much from being there, but at what might happen – would they win, or lose? The stakes were high.
But unlike the recognition that leads to celebrity in our culture, what was important had nothing to do with self, but everything to do with their people. They had a basic desire for their culture to be respected by others, particularly by white Australians. As Djigirr so poetically said at one point during filming: "If we go more further with losing our law then white man can tell us, ‘Where's your culture? Nothing, you're lost, well bad luck for you.'"
The elation they felt upon winning Best Film at the AFI Awards was the elation that meant their traditions, their ways and values, had been respected. They were both fortunate and well-informed in their emotions, much more fortunate and much better informed than their much more famous predecessor from Ramingining, David Gulpilil.
RAMINGINING TODAY IS A TOWNSHIP OF seven hundred people. There's one supermarket, one fast food shop, one petrol bowser, a kava shop and the next best thing to full unemployment. But almost forty years ago, when a teenage David Gulpilil was plucked out of the bush to star in the Nicholas Roeg filmWalkabout, Ramingining didn't even exist – the nearest shop of any description was four days' walk away.
Although David spoke six languages at that time, they did not include English. One can imagine his confusion, when the film was released, at being whisked away to the other side of the globe, walking the red carpet at Cannes, being taken to England to meet the Queen and making his inaugural walk on English soil in a lap lap – in the middle of winter.
One of David's fellow actors on Walkabout was the iconic John Meillion, who had an apparently deserved reputation for consuming vast quantities of beer while working. He was David's first professional mentor. Even today, David talks of those times, and how John taught him how to act whilst being drunk. And David is still proud of this ability.
David's next film was the aptly named and cast Mad Dog Morgan, starring Dennis Hopper at a phase of his life when lots of alcohol was good, but more potent mind-altering substances were even better. Dennis was David's second mentor in the ways of actors and acting.
David loves seeing his old films, and I remember watching Mad Dog Morgan with him a year or so ago. With pride, admiration and excitement, he'd point out the scenes in which they were drunk, or stoned. One particular scene stood out for David: "That's where Dennis was so off his face he couldn't stand up! Look at him! That's an actor!" He spoke proudly of their escapades, of getting locked up together, going missing, getting wasted.
It's not what anyone intended, but considering his age and his Western social skills at the time, it's little wonder that David's life since has been troubled.
STRUGGLE AS HE DID IN OUR CULTURE, David also began to struggle in his own culture. As tribal life gave way to a township, and the money economy was introduced, David became a virtual Centrelink in his community. He'd go away for a while on an acting job, and come back with money. As it was his obligation, responsibility and desire to share, all of it would be gone within days. The clothes he'd be wearing on his return went the same way as the money, so that each time he ventured out, he'd have to have new clothes bought for him on arrival.
Oddly enough, it was the mainstream fame he found with Crocodile Dundee that caused the most lasting damage. It was one of those films that even his mob in Ramo knew about. They also knew that it had made an unimaginably large amount of money, that it had made Paul Hogan rich. Logically then, his mob thought, it should have made David rich, because he was now world famous, just like Paul Hogan.
So where was the money? Did David truly only earn $10,000? If he did he must be very stupid to have been ripped off by all them white fellas? Or was David holding out on them, secretly stashing his money away contrary to tribal obligations?
I had direct experience of David's troubles reconciling the two. I visited Ramingining for the first time at the end of 2000, to talk to David about doing The Tracker. At one point I went for a walk with him because he wanted to buy some cigarettes. David started out with $300 in his pocket and by the time we returned twenty minutes later, he had less than $10 in loose change and perhaps five cigarettes left in his newly bought packet. He'd given freely and willingly, to anyone who asked or to anyone he thought needed money or smokes. It was both breathtakingly wonderful and deeply tragic.
But it didn't end there. That night, a fierce argument raged between the occupants of David's house and those in a nearby house. There was a tremendous amount of yelling, back and forth. It went on for hours. David was beside himself with anger. It turned out that a fourteen-year-old boy, related to the residents of the other house, was lost in the bush near a community hundreds of kilometres away. The people in the other house were humbugging David to give them the money for an airfare to the other community so that they could join in the search. David had no money to give them. They refused to believe him.
The next day, a man – a relative of David's – came to see me. He was quite articulate. He was wrestling with a conundrum, and he wanted my take on it: Mel Gibson is a world-famous Australian actor who gets $20 million per film; David Gulpilil is also a world-famous Australian actor, so why doesn't he also get $20 million per film? Or does he? Then David joined the discussion. He said he'd heard that Walkabout had been re-released in America (which was true, a limited art-house re-release), and he wanted to know where his share of it was.
Two hours of explanation later, all the steps in the explanation had been followed, but the questions and the conundrum remained. At the core of it there is no explanation they can understand except perhaps their perception that there is one rule for them and another for us.
David likes to believe and encourage others to think he can straddle two cultures. That he can function easily in both. The truth is that he's caught between them and is comfortable in neither.
The conflict between him and his community came to a head a couple of years ago. He now lives in the long grass (a euphemism that means he is really homeless) in Darwin, away from his tribal lands. Though the life is not an easy one, he seems generally happier there than either in his own community or in white society. He is still humbugged a bit by other long grassers, but at least they can see that he has nothing. He earns a bit by his painting, and what he earns he shares – just as he always has.
He knows that logically he should stay in Darwin, not venture away at all, but the call of celebrity is still too strong, not satisfied by the passing adulation of the tourists who walk the city's mall.
David loves getting awards. He has always enjoyed and appreciated ceremonies. While they can make him nervous, because he knows he doesn't truly belong, there are always substances like alcohol on tap to soothe his path. He loves the notion of celebrity in the white way. More often than not, when he receives an award, he'll begin his acceptance speech by saying: "I deserve this!" He'll grab whatever fringe benefits celebrity offers – drinks, women, praise. He can out-do even Russell Crowe in celebrity bad behaviour.
But underneath it, there's pride in his culture. Every time he lands a role he feels proud for his people. When he's on set, it's often with a real feeling that he's representing his people, and whenever he receives acclaim a part of him feels enormous pride for his culture. But, as a result of this one-man cultural collision, he's lost his culture, and found nothing to replace it.
DAVID'S FATE WAS A STRONG INFLUENCE ON some of our decisions about the publicity for Ten Canoes. We generally took only the most mature participants in the film – those most able to survive a brush with fame – to Cannes, on publicity tours or to awards ceremonies, and we counselled them extensively. Frances Djulibing is a grandmother, better educated and with better English than most. Richard Birrinbirrin is an artist and an arts administrator; he had already travelled widely, both within Australia and overseas. And Djigirr is very firmly grounded in his land and culture, unlikely ever to be seduced by the notion of celebrity. They accompanied us as the film made its global circuit.
Even they experienced anxiety in dealing with these completely foreign and incomprehensible white man's rituals. They too tried tempering the experience with alcohol, an inclination that was all the stronger because Ramingining is a dry community. Some early catastrophes, including missing planes, led them to moderate their celebration until after the "ceremony".
David still has high expectations of celebrity. Despite it getting him into constant trouble and often disappointing him, he does not yet want to accept that it is fickle. Frances, on the other hand, has been protected and has yet to be disappointed by celebrity. Of the Ramo mob, she's the one who has truly enjoyed the exposure. She loves the attention, loves getting her hair and make-up done, loves the opportunity to be dressed in designer labels. In interviews, she is generally comfortable – sometimes to the point of being assertive. She recognises her responsibilities and also likes to talk about herself and her people.
But she's sailing close to the wind. Since Ten Canoes, her life has changed for both the better and the worse. She's been on the cover of Woman's Day and she's been in another film, but her marriage is over and she's spent time living in Darwin, wanting to move to Melbourne, reluctant to go back to Ramingining. Recently she returned, and it's been good for her – somehow easier than life as an actor in the city.
Birrinbirrin just puts up with it all, going where requested, saying as few words as possible, occasionally falling over but mostly behaving with dignity, immensely proud of what his people have achieved.
Djigirr is the most wary. Celebrity is not part of his make-up: it's culturally foreign and utterly bizarre to him. He prefers to stay at home, working with crocodiles and crocodile eggs on his beloved swamp but keen to take advantage of anything that'll help strengthen his culture.
Maybe Djigirr has intuitively learnt from David's predicament.
The Cannes Film Festival was the mob's first trip overseas. Cannes during the film festival is hard for me to take; for them, it was like being on another planet. The crowds milling around, waiting for a glimpse of a star, paparazzi, flash and glitter, press conferences, interviews, being manhandled by photographers because they didn't understand either French or fractured English.
Before long, Birrin and Djigirr were suffering from the excess of it all. They urgently needed something to ground them. I'd heard there were groves of gum trees on a nearby island, so we caught the ferry over. Neither of them was expecting gum trees, and the first one Djigirr saw amazed him. He went up to it and hugged it. This soothed his soul: he was at peace with the world again. He addressed every other gum tree he saw, saying: "Tell your cousins over there I'll be home on Thursday!" He knows where his home is.
Hopefully, none of them will pay as high a price as David. He was the first to perform, to share his songs and dance on the big screen. But we didn't look after him well enough, and when he wanted to go home, he found he was lost and unable to find his way.
The great warrior, artist and tracker was in no man's land, unable to settle into white fella's ways and severed, irreparably, from his own. ♦