Amiel Courtin-Wilson pretty much sets up the tone of 2008’s Bastardy within its opening moments. “If I were to hide any of this,” says indigenous actor ‘Uncle’ Jack Charles as he lays out his drug paraphilia. “I don’t think this would be a true depiction of my lifestyle.” It’s a powerful image and not the last time we see Charles this open and frank.
Courtin-Wilson shoots Charles from a distance as he wanders around the streets of Melbourne leaving the larger than life character to seem tiny and insignificant in the world around him. In the best possible way, Bastardy shows the mass of contradictions that make up the then-homeless actor. As he waxes lyrical about his addiction, his lost love and his criminal record, Charles can leave his audience humble by his cheerfulness. He is happy to share his tales and is good for a philosophical thought or two. And yet, with the demons that run rife in Charles’ life, this kind of optimism doesn’t continue all the way through Bastardy.
We can’t escape the tragedies that have befallen him, nor ignore the things he does over the seven years it took to make the film. A particular tense moment sees Courtin-Wilson forced to confront Charles about the theft of some property behind the scenes. Realising the game is up, Charles reluctantly admits to his deeds. All the while we’re reminded, through photos and archive footage, that this is a man of talent. When he’s invited to do a day’s filming for an unnamed production, you can literally see the light in Charles shine brighter; acting is his home, it’s his sanctuary. It’s a wonderful, but maddeningly sad moment.
Nearly ten years on from its release, Bastardy is still a powerful, bittersweet but optimistic watch about one of the biggest trailblazers in the acting world and indigenous rights.