WARNING: this article may contain names, images or voices of deceased Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
In 2017 the NFSA screened the colonial-era drama The Tracker (2002) and hosted a Q&A afterwards with maverick Australian director Rolf de Heer in which he spoke about the film’s influences, production and legacy:
The Tracker is a stark moral tale set ‘somewhere in Australia’ in 1922. The film presents a history of massacres and colonial atrocities – a history that differs from many prior Australian films that glorify British settlement of the land. The story uses archetypal figures set against a consciously mythic backdrop.
It follows the journey of a band of men headed by a racist colonial law enforcement officer – the Fanatic (Gary Sweet) – who uses an Indigenous tracker (David Gulpilil) to locate the murderer of a white woman. As the party journeys further into the rugged Australian interior, each member suffers under the violent hand and entrenched racism of the Fanatic – who will stop at nothing to bring the accused to justice, even if others need to be sacrificed to reach this goal.
After the death of one of the men, and a surprise mutiny, it turns out that the group's survival depends on the enigmatic Tracker – whose motives remain elusive.
In this clip from the film, we see the events immediately leading to, and following, the mutiny and see an example of the film's distinctive approach to representing violence:
An essential dimension of the film, as de Heer explains in the above Q&A, is its unique representation of colonial violence. Initially, he wanted to portray the violence graphically but realised that the impact could be far greater – and less gratuitous – if it didn't feature at all. Thus, de Heer substitutes the violent moments with paintings created for the film by South Australian artist Peter Coad (see example in the clip above). The paintings could be from any time – and, as noted by australianscreen curator Paul Byrnes, 'represent a kind of collective memory'.
For more clips showcasing the film's fascinating visual and sonic dimensions, as well as Paul Byrnes' complete notes, see The Tracker on australianscreen.
Complementing The Tracker’s distinctive visual approach, as further explored in the Q&A, is the soundtrack. It features songs written by de Heer and sung – in his characteristically vivid way – by the iconic Indigenous performer, Archie Roach. To choose Roach for the soundtrack could not have been more appropriate, both aesthetically and symbolically – given his long-standing commitment to Indigenous rights and activism. His performances in this film function as allegorical commentary, making us engage more deeply with the subject matter.
Undoubtedly one of the country's most distinctive cinematic voices, director Rolf de Heer has developed a reputation for probing the Australian psyche and challenging cinematic convention. Born in 1951 in Heemskerk (The Netherlands), he migrated to Australia with his family in 1959. He spent his formative years working for the ABC before gaining entry to the Australian Film, Television and Radio School, where he studied Producing and Directing.
Among his thought-provoking and groundbreaking works – which can be found in the NFSA collection – is the relatively early feature Dingo (1992). This film traces the pilgrimage of the jazz player John Anderson (Colin Friels) from his hometown in the outback to the jazz clubs of Paris – where he meets his idol, trumpeter Billy Cross (played by the legendary Mile Davis in his only motion picture acting role). In this film, de Heer cuts and frames his shots to the music – attempting not only to make a film about jazz but a jazz film.
This clip from the film sees Anderson encountering Cross' music first-hand at – of all places – a tiny regional Australian airport:
Watch clips and read more about Dingo on australianscreen.
By contrast, the breakout cult sensation Bad Boy Bubby (1993) presents a dark satire-cum-parable focusing on a 35-year-old man who has never set foot outside his mother's dark and dank apartment situated in an industrial area of Adelaide. The film gained much praise for the bravura lead performance by actor Nick Hope, but also for its experimental elements such as the use of binaural microphone techniques to capture sound. The film won many awards including major accolades at the prestigious Venice Film Festival.
Watch clips and read more about Bad Boy Bubby on australianscreen.
Much of de Heer's oeuvre focuses on Indigenous issues, and his relationship with Gulpilil – forged during the production of The Tracker (2002) – continues in later works. These include Charlie's Country (2015), a story about an Indigenous man lost between two cultures. This beautifully shot film manages to examine themes of cultural dislocation through a form of bleak realism – but it also includes lovely moments of humour and even joy.
Perhaps de Heer’s most widely recognised and innovative work is Ten Canoes (2006), which follows the story of Dayindi (Jamie Gulpilil) – a young Aboriginal warrior, who wanders the bush hunting for eggs. The film is set in two time periods before British colonisation – a setting rarely encountered in Australian cinema – and showcases traditional and specific Aboriginal languages and culture that geographically correspond with the region where the narrative takes place. Ten Canoes won several notable awards including Best Film at the 2006 Australian Film Institute awards and a special jury prize in the Un Certain Regard section of the Cannes Film Festival.
For more on the intent and meaning of Ten Canoes, see New South Wales school students engage in an NFSA Connects Q&A with de Heer and Frances Djulibing, who played the film’s lead female role, and watch clips from the film on australianscreen.