Liz McNiven looks at David Gulpilil’s 40-year career and the profound impact he has had on Australian film.
WARNING: this article may contain names, images or voices of deceased Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
David Gulpilil changed the way the Australian screen represents Aboriginal peoples and their cultural heritage. He has brought the realism of ethnography into his portrayal of Aboriginality, replacing earlier derogatory and degrading representations of his people within Australian feature films. His presence also ended the reign of non-Aboriginal actors playing Aboriginal character roles.
As an actor, he reached the pinnacle of success in the 1970s with principal roles in a string of award-winning films including Walkabout (1970, directed by Nicolas Roeg); Storm Boy (1976, Henri Safran); and The Last Wave (1977, Peter Weir). He also starred alongside some of the best actors in the world, including Dennis Hopper in Mad Dog Morgan (1976, Philippe Mora). During this time, Gulpilil travelled the globe and mixed with world icons including Bruce Lee, Marlon Brando, John Lennon, Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix.
In Walkabout (1970), Gulpilil embodied the stereotypical image of a 'traditional’ Aborigine, untainted by western civilisation. Over the course of his career, he transformed this constructed identity into a more nuanced and accurate representation of Aboriginality.
Born into one of the world’s oldest continuous cultures, Gulpilil spent his childhood submerged within the customs and traditions of his peoples, the Yolngu, from Arnhem Land. Here he gained the skills, knowledge and expertise to take custodial responsibility for his country, to care for his family and to participate in cultural activities and ceremonies.
By the 1970s, the peoples of Arnhem Land were no strangers to film. From 1910 onwards they performed their cultural practices for a lineage of documentary filmmakers from Walter Baldwin Spencer, Donald Thompson and Charles Mountford to Cecil Holmes and Ian Dunlop. This background provided Gulpilil with an insight into audiovisual representations of Aboriginal peoples and cultures. It helped enable him to bring ethnographic imagery into feature films.