“I know you’re sick. It’s all that whiteman junk food we eat,” the elderly Aboriginal protagonist Charlie remarks towards his terminally ill friend. The Australian drama Charlie’s Country (directed by Rolf de Heer), which had its world premiere at the Adelaide Film Festival in October 2013, presents a fictional engagement with community life in the Northern Territory after the implementation of the Intervention. De Heer’s film emphatically addresses Indigenous people’s disadvantages—especially in relation to food and health issues. Since healthier options are inaccessible, Charlie and his community rely on the unhealthy food they can buy from the general store of their community and are consequently made ill by their diet. Charlie would prefer to hunt rather than consume the “whiteman junk food” offered at the store, though his thinness and persistent cough reveal that he has already suffered much from the poor nutrition and living conditions.
Much of Charlie’s Country is concerned with questions of self-determination. Especially hunting and thereby independence from the shop is suggested to be an act of liberation and sovereignty. However, while living in the Aboriginal community, hunting seems to be no option. When Charlie goes out bull hunting with his friend Pete, their guns are confiscated by the police along with Pete’s unregistered car. Even Charlie’s lovingly crafted hunting spear is seized as a “dangerous weapon.” Charlie therefore decides to “go bush.” He returns to the living style of his upbringing, hunting and gathering food, doing bark paintings and sleeping under a makeshift shelter. “There’s lots of food in the bush,” he is told by his friend Pete. “It’s like a supermarket out there.” The preparation of the barramundi during his walkabout is the ultimate expression of a lifestyle that would be healthy (“I’m eating well”) and self-determined. “It’s like a supermarket out there,” a phrase he repeats happily as he proudly prepares and eats the fish cooked in embers in the ground, adding that he is now “free.”
According to the United Nations, self-determination as a right from which all other human rights flow, should acknowledge Indigenous people’s position as sovereign in all decisions made in their life, including Indigenous law systems, speaking Indigenous languages, re-empowering cultural heritage and cosmologies; and having the right to choose what they eat. However, Australia’s violent colonial past of dispossession and paternalism towards Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people has had continuous effects on the acknowledgement of such human rights. Also in recent years, developments towards Indigenous self-empowerment and autonomy have clashed with governmental policies and interventions that have further disempowered Indigenous communities. Also Charlie’s Country depicts subtly such governmental measurements in remote Indigenous communities including the confiscation of Indigenous land, the ban on alcohol, and the introduction of BasicsCards that regulate shopping behaviour (in particular of groceries). Further, being cut off from employment opportunities, many Indigenous people rely on social benefits provided by the Australian welfare system and hence remain marginalized because they are unable to support themselves or live independently from the little that is provided to them. The film’s title Charlie’s Country already points towards the resistance against government seizure of land and its failure to acknowledge its precolonial owners. Charlie further expresses his resistance towards the injustices and exclusions of the Indigenous community when he asks his non-Indigenous employment officer: “You’ve got a job and a house, on my land. Where is my house and my job?” His marginalization happens on several levels: he is excluded from job opportunities and the right to possess (his) land; as much as his eating behaviour is restricted and limited by the welfare system’s control—all based on an inherent logic that Indigenous people cannot take care of money, their children, or themselves.
Popular film texts are a powerful means by which the burdens placed on Indigenous people are illustrated and explored. Many contemporary Indigenous filmmakers depict Indigenous protagonists in their postcolonial contexts as at risk, vulnerable and sick due to contexts of poverty, racism, neglect, drug abuse and violence. Examples include Samson and Delilah and Toomelah, films portraying Indigenous adolescents as bearing the brunt of the inadequate living conditions in rural Aboriginal communities, lacking bare necessities. Next to the portrayal of poor housing, sanitary, and health conditions, the images of empty fridges and saucepans allude to the insufficient nutrition of the protagonists. The communities’ local convenience stores seem to be the only and enforced supplier for food—usually unhealthy food such as crisps and sweets—as healthier options are unaffordable or inaccessible.
Charlie’s attempt to live off the country, despite its promises of self-determination, ends miserably. De Heer and Gulpilil make an effort to avoid stereotypical or simplifying representations of Indigenous Australians and the promise of “returning to country.” As Charlie lies shivering in the rain, the film subverts romanticised images of an Indigenous walkabout. After days of coughing and starvation, he speaks out deliriously: “Mother Country is a long way…too far…I can’t see it…my Mother” and he is just found in time by his friend Pete to bring him to hospital in Darwin. Ever since his first appearance on screen at age sixteen, the Aboriginal dancer and actor David Gulpilil has to a large extent been the defining (somewhat tokenistic) on-screen face and body of the Indigenous Australian. Starting his film career as an eroticized representation of the attractive young Aboriginal boy in his debut Walkabout, his recent films take full effect by depicting his aged and long-suffering body. Now in his 60s, Gulpilil’s collaboration with director Rolf de Heer is inarguably the most personal of his projects. Gulpilil co-wrote the film with de Heer, starting on the project while the actor was serving prison time and was then subsequently staying in a drug and alcohol rehab centre for Indigenous people. While the story is fictionalised and its dialogue improvised (in English and Yolŋu Matha), Gulpilil’s own severely emaciated and ailing body emphasises as much truthfulness of the harsh realities faced by the Indigenous population as the actor’s own troubled past.
After discharging himself from the hospital in Darwin, things become even more difficult once Charlie falls in with a group of urban homeless Indigenous people. The way they obtain alcohol, despite severe prohibitions, serves as an ironic demolition of the restrictions and bans implemented by the Intervention, although at the same time the scenes of Charlie’s drinking and desperation are distressing. “Even the food in prison is better than this,” he proclaims, once back from jail and upon returning to the community’s local store. And indeed, the variety of the prison food (depicted in a colourful montage) supports Charlie’s impression. By telling the story from Charlie’s perspective, his conflicts and failures expose a deeply entrenched colonialist system, one which prevents Charlie from living a free and healthy life. His attempt to position himself as a healthy and responsible hunter and eater seems simply impossible. Yet I would like to read Charlie’s choice to leave the community and go back to the precolonial way of life, despite the negative consequences and its subsequent failure, as a genuine indication of agency and an act of resistance.
Governmental paternalisms such as the policies of the Intervention are “becoming yet another chapter in the history of well-intentioned but ultimately misguided Indigenous policies,” as the cultural and medical anthropologist Emma Kowal argues. The art of (institutionalised) caring undermines individual agency and self-empowerment. Cinematic discussions of food and health choices are an effective way to visualise contemporary Indigenous experience and their struggle towards the broader context of self-determination as a human right.