Words by Michael McAtomney
David Gulpilil might not be a household name in the United States when it comes to A-List acting talent. In the world of Australian cinema, however, the 65-year-old Gulpilil stands in a league of his own. As a groundbreaking Indigenous Australian actor, very few figures stand taller in the last two decades of Aussie cinema than David Gulpilil.
You might know Gulpilil from his role in the classic 1986 film, Crocodile Dundee, but as a Gen-Y kid, I was first introduced to Gulpilil through the 2002 film, The Tracker. Set in 1922, The Tracker follows the story of a mounted police unit and an Aboriginal tracker in search of an indigenous man accused of murdering a white woman in a remote stretch of the Australian outback. Throughout the confronting and brutal story, the tracker, Gulpilil, watches on as the mounted police unit battle with their differing views on the racism being perpetrated against Indigenous Australians and grappling with inner demons.
The art of tracking in the remote Australian bush is something that Gulpilil knew all too well. Born in 1953 in remote Arnhem Land, in the far reaches of Australia’s Northern Territory, Gulpilil was raised outside the reaches of modern Australia. After learning tracking, hunting and tribal dancing through his traditional Aboriginal upbringing, Gulpilil attended school in North East Arnhem Land before his breakout acting success in Walkabout (1971). Since then, Gulpilil’s acting career has gone from one high note to another, leading him to become the most prolific Indigenous Australian actor to have graced the silver screen.
Throughout his 20s, 30s and 40s Gulpilil’s acting career flourished with roles in Storm Boy (1976), The Last Wave (1977) and Crocodile Dundee (1986) to name but a few. All these performances, however, were long before my time. Then came along the aforementioned film, The Tracker. That same year, he provided us with another groundbreaking performance in Rabbit-Proof Fence. Rabbit Proof Fence tells true story of three young Indigenous Australian girls taken from their family by the Australian Government who were moved thousands of miles away to a re-education camp in Moore River, Western Australia. They ultimately escape and make a 1,500 mile journey on foot back to their families in Jigalong, with Aboriginal tracker, Moodoo (Gulpilil), in hot pursuit. This film resembled — in a way that I had yet to perceive — the harsh and disgraceful history of Australia’s relationship with its first peoples. Gulpilil’s performance in both The Tracker and Rabbit-Proof Fence was one of absolute realism in both his role as an actor and as a proud Indigenous Australian. Since then, Gulpilil hasn’t slowed down, finding huge success in films such as Ten Canoes (2006), Charlie’s Country (2013) and Goldstone (2013).
Though he had his share of off-screen personal troubles, Gulpilil’s representation of Indigenous Australia on film is unlike anything that’s been seen before. The characters he portrays still resonate in modern Australia as a stark reminder of the country’s grim history in its treatment of Aboriginals. As an actor, Gulpilil has achieved the highest levels of success in Australian cinema. He was awarded a Member of the Order Australia as part of the Queen’s Birthday Honour’s List and the Australian Centenary Medal in 2001 for his contribution to Australian society through dancing and acting. Currently residing in Australia’s Northern Territory, Gulpilil has remained true to his culture throughout his life and inspired generations of young Indigenous Australians.
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