Listen: ‘My Name is Gulpilil’ director Molly Reynolds shares about David Gulpilil’s life, Australia’s first Indigenous actor with Laura Bennett.
David Gulpilil is an icon of Australian cinema. He’s appeared in two of our highest grossing titles, Crocodile Dundee and Australia, and has brought countless Indigenous stories to life in films like Mad Dog Morgan and Rabbit Proof Fence.
His life has not been easy, as David bridges the gap between “tribal life” and Hollywood and, in recent years, deals with an aggressive lung cancer diagnosis that’s forcing him to slow down.
Not one to stop working though, David’s found a way to continue on-screen storytelling with “my story of my story” in the new documentary My Name is Gulpilil.
Originally, it was intended to capture David’s final months of life, highlighting his career and ending with his funeral service and traditional farewell.
Instead, as David defied the doctors’ prognoses, it depicts a man riddled by sickness contemplating an end that feels so close, while reflecting on the origin and wonder of a life that’s been truly extraordinary and unmatched.
Director Molly Reynolds (Twelve Canoes), said that, “What makes [David] so special is he was the first Indigenous ‘actor’ – not just a ‘blackfella’ on stage or on screen – but a real performer that could hold his own against the best of them”.
“He led the way. He said to his kin, to other First Australians, ‘We can do this’,” Molly said.
“They saw him on screen and I think it gave everyone permission to say, ‘Yeah, we can be performers. We can be filmmakers. We belong here, and we can own this’. That will be David’s legacy.”
David originally entered the acting world when a group of filmmakers came to his small community looking for someone who could dance well “and knew how to throw a spear”, Molly recalled.
Everyone pointed to David, and Molly said, “The rest is history”.
“The way he moves is so elegant. And I think because he had skills as a dancer [steeped in] his culture, that extended into acting and he knew how to perform,” she said.
“The way he moves is so elegant. And I think because he had skills as a dancer [steeped in] his culture, that extended into acting and he knew how to perform,” – My Name is Gulpilil director Molly Reynolds
As much as David was a pioneer, his life has also been a culmination of contradictions between his traditional Aboriginal ways, and the Western excesses of Hollywood.
During his career David was introduced to the tobacco and marijuana that have undoubtedly led to his cancer, and it’s not lost on Molly how significantly that’s played into how David’s spending his final years.
The duality of David’s life means “he no longer belongs to either culture”, Molly said.
“He’s been away for so long from his own culture, yet he’s not truly a part of the dominant culture.
“[The Western world] created the lung cancer, and now he’s bound to Western medicine to keep him alive because the old ways aren’t, at all.”
For the premiere of Walkabout in 1971, David travelled the globe promoting the film, introducing many to Australia’s Indigenous heritage for the first time.
In commentary that feels incredibly dated now, David’s presence was viewed with a degree of spectacle, and he jokes that people wondered if he “was a kangaroo” because he was so foreign and unusual to them.
Asked whether David resented that sentiment, Molly said, “In the beginning he relished it, and then after that it began to wear him out”.
“Admittedly, along the way he got to meet the Queen, got to meet Clint Eastwood and Bruce Lee, and a lot of famous people. But I think in the end, he was like, ‘Enough already’.”
My Name is Gulpilil is in select cinemas from May 27. Rated M. Listen to Molly’s full interview with Laura Bennett in the player above.