The Tracker: Blackfella's law

The Tracker: Blackfella's law
WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that the following program may contain images and/or audio of deceased persons
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After the death of the fanatic, the tracker (David Gulpilil) and the follower (Damon Gameau) are captured by the local tribe in this area. They have also captured the fugitive (Noel Wilton), an Aboriginal man of a different clan. The follower (Damon Gameau) is horrified when the tracker takes part in a traditional punishment, spearing the fugitive’s leg, for the crime of raping a woman. Summary by Paul Byrnes.

The Tracker is partly about the violent stain in Australian race relations, but it’s also about depictions of violence on the screen. The movie is incredibly direct and confronting in showing cruelty and humiliation, but it substitutes a series of paintings, created for the film by South Australian artist Peter Coad, for most of the explicit depictions of ultimate violence. These paintings disrupt the place that violent scenes usually occupy in violent cinema – there is no payoff for the viewer who wants the thrill of gore. Instead, each killing becomes a kind of instant history. The paintings could be from any time, representing a collective memory. Director Rolf de Heer is turning these despicable, unspeakable acts into a kind of cinematic cave painting.

The story is fictional but we know that these things happened, and de Heer’s strategy is to make us feel them in a different way. The film isn’t just about white violence or white justice, though. When Gulpilil’s character does eventually exact revenge, he gives the policeman a mock-trial in British court-style, and a British form of execution – hanging. White law is then superseded, as the local tribesmen take the tracker and the young policeman prisoner. They already have the black fugitive in custody, for the rape of a woman of their clan. The tracker has to spear him in the leg, a punishment that again is replaced with a painting.

The film was shot with a small crew, in sequence, on location in the northern Flinders Ranges of South Australia, and the paintings were done on location. De Heer and Gulpilil continued their collaboration four years later with another provocative and visually stunning film about Aboriginal life, Ten Canoes (2006).

World premiere: March 2 2002, Her Majesty’s Adelaide
National release: 8 August 2002

Notes by Paul Byrnes


The Tracker Synopsis

In rough bush country in 1922, an Aboriginal tracker (David Gulpilil) leads three white men in the hunt for a black fugitive. The senior policeman in charge (Gary Sweet) murders 'bush blacks’ on sight; a young constable (Damon Gameau) joins in, but then takes a stand; a third man, probably a farmer (Grant Page) does nothing to stop the killing, even though he disapproves. The tracker watches and waits for his chance to turn the tables, as the party rides further into the bush.


Additional curator's notes

The Tracker, a film directed by Rolf de Heer about an Aboriginal tracker employed by colonists to pursue an Aboriginal fugitive, touches on historic events that may or may not have happened.

The Tracker (David Gulpilil) at the beginning of the flim is fully clad in European clothes, distinguishing him from the ‘bush blacks’. Symbols such as these that were used to convey the distinction or the different classifications of Aboriginal peoples in use during this period (the film is set in 1922). We see Tracker gradually discard his European garb as he begins to see little distinction between himself and the Aborigines he is pursuing.

The tension between white law and Indigenous law is central to this narrative, and Tracker (David Gulpilil) is himself hostage to the chains of white civility as much as the Aboriginal man he is tracking, who has been found guilty of murdering a white woman. The decision by de Heer to use paintings to depict onscreen violence is both a creative and political decision. The choice not to depict the violence of the massacres of Aboriginal peoples can be interpreted in a number of ways. Firstly, the visual strength of seeing white men commit atrocities against Indigenous peoples is masked by the paintings, distancing the audience from the visceral reality of Aboriginal deaths – both on the screen and potentially in actual history. On screen, the choice to use paintings interrupts how the audience relates to the characters in the context of the horrific acts they have committed. After the first massacre for example, the police collectively kill a group of Aboriginal peoples. The empathy however after the killing depicted through the paintings, is with the young trooper, and it is his emotional state that becomes central to the story.

Secondly, the use of paintings to mask the violence against the Indigenous characters actually removes them from the story, simply because visually we are not privy to it, and instead we deal with the white characters’ reactions to the acts that are committed. The title of The Tracker suggests that it is the Aboriginal tracker who is central to the story, but instead, the film is more about how the white characters deal with their own sense of morality. The sound track is a haunting one, sung by Archie Roach, whose voice gives an emotional depth to the film, and actually substitutes for the voices of the silent Aboriginal characters whose physical presence are not dealt with in real time.

Additional notes by Romaine Moreton


education notes

This clip shows the complexity of the role of an Indigenous tracker as he interacts with non-Indigenous and Indigenous people in conflict over whose law applies in a particular situation. The clip opens with the Tracker (David Gulpilil) and the Follower, a white policeman (Damon Gameau), after they have been captured by local Aboriginal people who have also captured the Fugitive (Noel Wilton), an Indigenous man of a different cultural group whom the pair have been chasing. The Follower is confronted when the Tracker takes part in traditional law by spearing the Fugitive’s leg as punishment for raping a woman. A painting of a speared man is substituted for footage of the action.

Educational value points

  • This clip highlights the powerful role of Indigenous trackers as intermediaries, interpreters and negotiators between Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultures. Although the Tracker calls the young policeman 'boss’, the policeman is portrayed as very vulnerable and totally reliant on the Tracker to interpret the local language and explain cultural practices. Although a tracker’s role among Indigenous Australians could be controversial because trackers were used to apprehend other Indigenous people, in this clip the Tracker defers to traditional law.
  • In this clip traditional Indigenous law is contrasted with non-Indigenous law and presented as equal. The Tracker says that ‘God respects Aboriginal law as much as he respects white man’s law, and maybe more’. The young policeman, the official upholder of non-Indigenous law, is forced to watch a spearing, an action that is both a sanctioned punishment under customary law and an offence under white law. Older Indigenous men have found the man guilty and the punishment is given by the group.
  • The deliberate use of an Indigenous language without subtitles throughout this clip highlights an Indigenous perspective and presents traditional law and cultural practices as the dominant position. All dialogue except that between the Tracker and the Follower is in traditional language, positioning members of the audience who do not understand the language as outsiders.
  • The clip uses South Australian artist Peter Coad’s painting of a speared man to represent the Tracker spearing the Fugitive. The Fugitive’s loud cry of pain, followed by silence, adds to the effectiveness of the painted image. The technique is used in other parts of the film to communicate violent events in the narrative and to focus the viewer on characters’ reactions to acts of violence.

Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia

Production company:
Vertigo Productions
Julie Ryan, Rolf de Heer
Executive Producers :
Domenico Procacci, Bryce Menzies, Bridget Ikin
Rolf de Heer
Rolf de Heer
Songs and Music composed by:
Graham Tardif
Produced with the assistance of the Film Finance Corporation Australia and SBS Independent in association with the South Australian Film Corporation. Produced in association with the Adelaide Festival of the Arts

The tracker and the follower have been captured by a local tribe. They are taken to a spot where a group of men from the tribe discuss amongst themselves.
Tracker That’s him there, boss.
He indicates a man who is sitting down, also held captive. One of the elders of the tribe motions for the tracker to come and talk to him. The tracker speaks quietly to the elder, the captive and another man, all in the local language. He returns to stand beside the follower.
Tracker He says he not kill a white woman, boss. Him far away when she killed.
Follower We should take him in. We have to take him in. He can tell that to the court.
Tracker Court already find him guilty, boss. Blackfella. He’s telling the truth, anyway.
The elder indicates that the captive man should stand up. The tracker takes a spear from one of the men and spears the captive man. He cries in pain. A painting depicts him lying down, the spear through his leg. The follower watches on in horror.
Follower Why? Why did you do that? You said he was innocent.
Tracker Tribal justice, boss. Broken the law – Aboriginal law. Back at the waterhole with a woman. He rape her. She’s wrong skin for him.
Follower But you’re a Christian. I heard you give absolution.
Tracker God respect Aboriginal law as much as he respect whitefella’s law. Maybe more. Now, if you want to stay alive you better be quiet and follow me.