Gulpilil: One Red Blood Review

Genre: Documentary
Year Released: 2003
Distributor: ArtMattan
Origin: Australia
Running Time: 56 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: 15+
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: My Name is Gulpilil, The Hunting Party, Three Dances by Gulpilil, The Morning Star Painter, Putuparri and the Rainmakers
-Gulpilil: One Red Blood is a bonus feature on the DVD release of The Tracker. Despite being unrelated films, The Tracker was one of the many archived films used for this project.
Fun Facts:
-David Gulpilil Dalaithngu got his name for different reasons. Gulpilil is Yolgnu for kingfisher which was his tribe’s skin group totem animal. The name David came when he was in a mission school after he was orphaned.

-Some of the archived films featured in this documentary include Walkabout (Gulpilil’s debut role), Rabbit-Proof Fence, Boney, and Crocodile Dundee to name a few.

-One of the interviewees was the director of Rabbit-Proof Fence Phillip Noyce. Some of his other films in his portfolio include Backroads, The Bone Collector, Salt, and he adapted The Giver.

-Gulpilil was born in Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia. That is an Aborigine-majority section of that state and it’s in the Northeastern-most part there. The closest major city to it is Darwin. By closest, I mean it’s 310 miles away from there.

It doesn’t feel like a Black film-themed month unless I review something from ArtMattan. Last year, I reviewed one of their films alongside different movies for a month straight. While I don’t have the time to do that at this point in my life, I still wanted to review something from that company. This example is a bit of a throwback since I reviewed the Australian film The Tracker not too long ago. The good thing about these ArtMattan films is that they typically come with bonus films as extras or come bundled with another movie in a set. The Aboriginal community still counts for a concept like this, so I thought it would be good to research more things about that community including one of their major actors.

I saw David Gulpilil portray the title character of Rolf de Heer’s 2002 meat pie western, but let’s see what he was like behind the scenes.

Gulpilil: One Red Blood is a documentary dealing with the history of the actor and dancer of the same name. Despite being in some major films in Australia and even Hollywood, David Gulpilil resides in “the bush” with his family several miles away from the major cities as a village elder. There are multiple interviews involving the title actor, some of his family, filmmakers, fellow actors, and other Aborigines in the educational field. Gulpilil talks about his life at the time while telling his story such as how he doesn’t remember when he was born, not seeing Aboriginal characters on TV, being educated in a mission school, and seeing the outside world in the major Australian cities much less overseas. A mix of archived footage, then-current footage (from the early 00s), and pictures illustrate the life of Gulpilil onscreen or behind the cameras.

I realized I haven’t watched many documentaries about actors. While I’ve reviewed documentaries about filmmakers such as This Is Not a Film (an autobiographical one, but it still counts), Iran: A Cinematographic Revolution, or Sara Gomez: An Afro-Cuban Filmmaker, but the closest one I’ve come to before about actors was Denying Brazil. Even then, it was about Black Brazilian actors talking about their experience in the business and the racism they’ve dealt with. This was a bit of a new kind of documentary for me as a reviewer and I’m surprised it’s taken that long. I was unaware of David Gulpilil until I watched The Tracker for the first time not long ago. Gulpilil having a decent amount of interview time was a good choice where he talks about his life, career, and Aborigine culture. I was surprised that he was living in a shack that he made, did his own hunting and fishing, or about how he swam in crocodile-infested waters. He even claims that the Crocodile Dundee movies are “BS” and how his hometown was the real Crocodile Dundee as he was in the bush. It’s hard to believe that he didn’t even want a typical middle-class home or how where he lived was in the same country as Sydney, Canberra, Perth, or any Australian city one can think of. I can’t think of any actors who would intentionally put themselves in that position. However, he was screwed over by not getting all of the paychecks that he earned and deserved for his roles on TV and in movies. Gulpilil and some of the other interviewees in or outside the film industry were a good mix. They offered some amazing insight on Aborigine representation or the lack thereof even during the early 00s. You had people in that community seeing Gulpilil as someone who gave them hope that someone like them could get a leading role. There was some shocking history that Aboriginal characters decades ago were played by white actors in blackface or played by Asians. One clip involved a meat pie western that featured that example in the 60s which made me facepalm. The blackface stuff would’ve been unacceptable in America even by 60s standards and not just because of the Civil Rights Movement that happened in those times. Interestingly enough, there was an Aboriginal Rights Movement that happened then even up to the 70s which showed the influence of that movement for social change. I also appreciated how there was a healthy critique of fighting against racism and calling out the genocidal implications of Social Darwinism of how certain races were made to be exterminated by those “higher” in the alleged system. There was a good mix of interviewees of different ethnic groups giving their insight on Gulpilil as well as Aborigines in cinema with that actor being a gateway for others. In addition to the history and personal stories, the usage of Aboriginal music was appropriate and the natural filmmaking during the then-present day scenes worked very well. I did feel like I learned a lot about David Gulpilil at that point in his life and even about Aboriginal representation/presentation in media.

Gulpilil: One Red Blood is built on an inspirational quote, but some parts could use a transplant if anyone pardons the medical pun. It’s good to show the reality of David Gulpilil’s life and career, but sometimes the scenes of his homeland in the bushes of arid Northern Australia do veer into poverty porn territory for me. I get that it was to show his commitment to being a village elder in his community and to show how he was screwed over by some film companies, but I know viewers are going to scream about the third-world imagery even if it’s in the same country as those major cities I talked about in the previous paragraph. Even some of the characters Gulpilil played had some stereotypes attached with the spear-throwing, saying “boss” the same way uneducated African-American slaves would say “massa” (accent aside), or how some scenes will definitely play on white fear implications such as one movie where his character looks at a naked white woman. Out of context, it looks like the precursor of some KKK propaganda of a Black man violating white women like Birth of a Nation even though he doesn’t do that in that film. I wasn’t a fan of some of the dialogue from Phillip Noyce. He said some neutral and interesting things, but I was turned off when he said that Gulpilil was “acquiescing to my [Noyce’s] power” when it came to having him act as well as doing behind-the-scenes tracking on location. I know it’s not as callous as Jon Taffer from Bar Rescue’s “starving dogs” quote on a Fox News interview, but I’m sorry; a white guy saying that about a Black man (Aboriginal, ADOS, African, etc.) has slave driver optics to that even if he wanted to show off his acting skills. After doing some additional research on David Gulpilil, there is one scene that is incredibly darker in hindsight. There is a part of the documentary where Gulpilil and some of the local Aborigines are shown smoking weed while using glass bottles and big tin cans as makeshift bongs. He claims that he drinks grog, whiskey, and marijuana while making a colonial potshot of “you people [the white community] brought it here” when the Aboriginal communities were dry as well as alcoholism ravaging villages in the present day. While he’s not wrong in that comment in isolation, this actor had major problems with the booze. He was introduced to grog during his Walkabout days. Decades after the fact, he would get a restraining order by the magistrate on behalf of his wife at the time Miriam Ashley (not featured in the documentary). This order involved him staying away from her when he hit the bottle. Sadly, one encounter led to him fracturing Ashley’s arm with a broom and he got a whole year in prison due to aggravated assault. He got sober after doing jail time, but that is a very uncomfortable truth to learn about Gulpilil. If I’m on the record for calling Steve Austin a “wife-beater” in passing in my Theatre of Wrestling review, then I have to dock the score knowing what I know now about this actor.

This documentary about the late David Gulpilil was informative, but there were some lows that did affect my viewing enjoyment in my research. The information about Gulpilil’s history until 2003 was very interesting and I liked the dialogue about positive Aboriginal representation with how important it is. The no-frills approach to the modern footage with the archive footage worked well. There was some important history, but some of Gulpilil’s vices would end up being harmful to others a few years after this documentary was completed. To say his history at large would be complex would be an understatement. I would’ve given this a high 7 or a low 8 at first before knowing about the later part of David Gulpilil’s life with his alcoholism.

Adjustable Point System:
-Add 1-2 points if you like David Gulpilil’s work.
-Add 1 point if you like documentaries involving positive ethnic representation.
-Subtract 1-2 points if you prefer flashier actor documentaries.
-Subtract 2-3 points if you don’t feel comfortable with Gulpilil’s low points in life after this was filmed.

-Natural filmmaking was competent
-Unique history about Aboriginal representation
-Diverse group of interviewees

-Gets to poverty porn fodder at times
-Some of Phillip Noyce’s commentary is questionable
-Major harsher in hindsight moment with the drug and alcohol usage

Final Score: 6/10 points

Content Advisory: Gulpilil: One Red Blood would be better for older teens and up. There’s strong language at times, drug usage including a scene where some people are smoking marijuana, some gory hunting scenes, and multiple scenes (archived and current at the time) of nudity. One archived scene of Dennis Hopper involves him flipping off the camera. The subject matter does cover genocides, racism, blackface, and poverty.

-Curtis Monroe

All photos are property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. Gulpilil: One Red Blood is the property of ArtMattan. The poster is from IMDb and is the property of ArtMattan.

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