My Name is Gulpilil

by Jennifer Bryce

This documentary of actor David Gulpilil is not so much about him; it is him. He narrates it and, one feels, is totally in control of it. The director, Molly Reynolds, has worked closely with him in a number of his movies. The career of this revered Indigenous Yolŋu actor spans 50 years and the story moves gently between present and past, the past being deftly inserted clips from Gulpilil’s many movie performances. Although he seems a fish out of water when he had to go to London (he’d barely been to Adelaide) after the success of Walkabout (1971) – he can joke about having to eat with a knife and fork.

Gulpilil’s present existence is that of a 60-something-year-old cancer sufferer and we see him having chemo (with Mary his friend and carer close by) and having radiotherapy. We see what an effort it is for him to walk to the post box each morning. I was interested at how this movie managed to show a kind of blending of Western medicine and Indigenous – to me, some of the diagrams of lungs shown were reminiscent of Indigenous paintings. But, as Gulpilil says, there is a difference – a difference which he manifests: Western medicine tries to beat the disease, but the Indigenous approach is one of acceptance and Gulpilil is going ‘back to country on a one-way ticket’.

Clearly, his days are numbered and I couldn’t help thinking that it is the Western lifestyle of movie-making that made him the drug addict and alcoholic that he admits to being. In a shot described by the Guardian reviewer as ‘Buñuelian’, Gulpilil is filmed from overhead, lying in a coffin with spools of film all around him as though they are sprouting from him – this is David Gulpilil.