Review: My Name is Gulpilil lets Indigenous performer David Gulpilil tell his own story

David Gulpilil in My Name is Gulpilil. Picture: Supplied
David Gulpilil in My Name is Gulpilil. Picture: Supplied

My Name is Gulpilil (M, 101 minutes)

4 stars

Like all the great movie stars, David Gulpilil has presence. When I watched him speaking directly at the camera, as he does many times in this documentary, it felt as though as he was gazing right at me, and when the film shows him acting or dancing or simply speaking, I found it hard to take my eyes of him.

Gulpilil is one of Australia's most enduring stars: since his first role as an Indigenous teenager who falls in love with a white girl in Nicolas Roeg's memorable Walkabout (1971) he's appeared in many notable Australian films. Among these are Storm Boy (1976), The Tracker (2002), Rabbit Proof Fence (2002) and Charlie's Country (2013), for the last of which he won the best actor award at Cannes. He was also in the two highest-grossing Australian films, Crocodile Dundee (1986) and Australia (2008).

This film, directed by Molly Reynolds, was filmed over a few years and seems to have been intended as a cinematic eulogy. Gulpilil was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2017 and doctors estimated he had six months to live but at the time of writing he is still with us, in his late 60s. He lives in Murray Bridge, South Australia, with his carer Mary, far from his original home in Arnhem Land to which he says, he will return posthumously.

At one point, Gulpilil says, "I'm an actor, I'm a dancer, I'm a singer and also, a painter. This film is about me. This is my story of my story."

And this is true. Reynolds largely lets Gulpilil tell his own story, whether through recent interviews, film clips, stage performance excerpts or archival footage. There are some obviously staged moments - Gulipil walking in one direction and then another, and one surreal image of him lying in a red-lined coffin, covered in old film reels - but they fit in thematically to the notion of looking both forwards and backwards, as the film's chronology does, and the inherent subjectivity of memory and documentary.

My Name is Gulpilil is not the first film made about the actor, nor does it seek to be a comprehensive or even traditional biographical account. There are no talking-heads interviews with colleagues, friends or family members. There are a few humorous anecdotes - Gulpilil remembers working on Mad Dog Morgan with Dennis Hopper, who seemed to be mad himself and there's a charming anecdote about an encounter with Queen Elizabeth II. But the tone overall is serious.

With the help of editing and sound design, the film comes across as a thoughtful meditation on Gulpilil's life, almost a reverie, the audio and video acting as though they provide access to his memories.

Sometimes this leads to mild frustration. Gulpilil talks a bit about family but not in great detail: there seems to be a lot of regret there, as we also hear a media report about his imprisonment for domestic abuse. There's obviously more to this part of his history, but he doesn't dwell on it. Perhaps, at this stage, it's too painful.

My Name is Gulpilil is a fitting tribute to a major Australian artist.

This story Fitting tribute to a major Australian talent first appeared on The Canberra Times.