My Name is Gulpilil
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…rich yet endlessly complex…
In the opening shot, we watch who we presume to be the titular Gulpilil walk down a featureless dirt road — his beanpole legs carrying him away from us at an entrancingly slow pace… Then suddenly, out from behind him, and to our mystification, emerges an emu who walks at a similarly leisurely cadence to Gulpilil, and whose mode of transport also happens to be a pair of pencil-thin legs. It is an image of nature’s inevitable divergence from the path of man, but one which also reminds us of their inseverable bond — a bond never more profound and complex than in the life of Gulpilil.
In 1969, David Gulpilil’s hunting skills, tribal dancing and undeniable charisma caught the eye of British director Nicolas Roeg, who was scouting a lead actor for his upcoming film, Walkabout. Following Roeg’s masterful capture of said charisma, and the film’s consequent success, Gulpilil rose to international stardom. From that point on, he was a man of two realms: the western and the tribal.
Here, director Molly Reynolds (Another Country) shows us the final chapter of Gulpilil’s life: he has been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer and the doctors’ forecasts are far from promising. As made evident from the aforementioned opening, Reynolds (like us, like Roeg, and like so many subsequent casting agents) appreciates the magnetic virtue of her subject. On countless occasions, she gifts us with these unhurried and intimate holds on Gulpilil’s face, whose indecipherable expression we never tire of.
As the film wades through the gloomy stints at sterile hospital wards, we concurrently skate through his life, from his rapid rise to celebrity, through his steady career, and into his twilight years when he succumbed to a number of vices. In this way, the film magically works as one might expect a mind would when confronted with its own mortality, reminiscing on the happier years, while ruing over the irretrievable ones. This is all tied together with a masterful sound design, which is able to melt these seemingly infusible phases together, altogether forming a rich yet endlessly complex character.
All throughout, Reynolds exhibits a noble devotion to the truth, just as a true documentarian should, as the film always shows the necessary restraint for such a modest farewell as this: Gulpilil’s fight against cancer isn’t dramatised, his past misdemeanours are neither defended nor absolved, and his enfeebled body and mind is presented with little subterfuge — whittled by its vices.
While the film centres around a man who throughout his adult life has been torn between two worlds, the story is more so focused on his preparations to depart from both realms — and to do so with redeeming humility.
My Name is Gulpilil is produced by Molly Reynolds, David Gulpilil, Rolf De Heer and Peter Djigirr.
Photo by Miles Rowland