My Name Is Gulpilil
This moving and probing documentary pays tribute to the face of Australian cinema — and one of the nation's astounding on-screen talents.
May 27, 2021
Lengthy is the list of Australian actors who've started their careers on home soil, then boosted their fame, acclaim and fortunes by heading abroad. Some have won Oscars. Others are global household names. One plays a pigtailed comic book villain in a big film franchise, while another dons a cape and wields a hammer in a competing blockbuster saga. David Gulpilil doesn't earn any of the above descriptions, and he isn't destined to. It wouldn't interest him, anyway. His is the face of Australian cinema, though, and has been for half a century. Since first gracing the silver screen in Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout, the Yolŋu man has gifted his infectious smile and the irrepressible glint in his eye to many of the nation's most important movies. Indeed, to peruse his filmography is to revel in Aussie cinema history. On his resume, 70s classics such as Mad Dog Morgan and The Last Wave sit alongside everything from Crocodile Dundee and Rabbit-Proof Fence to Australia, Goldstone and Cargo — as well as parts in both the first 1976 film adaptation of Storm Boy and its 2019 remake.
The latest film to benefit from the Indigenous talent's presence: My Name Is Gulpilil. It might just be the last do to so, however. That sad truth has been baked into the documentary ever since its subject asked director Molly Reynolds and producer Rolf de Heer — two filmmakers that Gulpilil has collaborated with before, including on Another Country, Charlie's Country, Ten Canoes and The Tracker — to make something with him after he was diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer. That was back in 2017, when he was given just six months to live. Gulpilil has been proving that diagnosis wrong ever since. This heartfelt portrait of an Australian icon like no other also benefits from his defiance, particularly in practical terms. Initially starting out as a 30-day shoot, the doco eventually extended over twice that period, with Gulpilil, Reynolds and their movie alike all given the most precious thing there is: more time.
The film that results celebrates a star who'll never be matched, and reminds viewers exactly why that's the case — but My Name Is Gulpilil isn't a mere easy, glossy tribute. Anyone could've combined snippets of Gulpilil's movies with talking heads singing his praises. In the future, someone probably will. But Reynolds is interested in truly spending time with Gulpilil, hearing his tale in his own words, and painting as complete a portrait of his life, work, dreams, regrets, spirit, culture and impact as possible. Accordingly, this touching feature steps through Gulpilil's highs and lows as relayed by the man himself. It spends much of its duration enjoying simply being with dancer, painter and actor, in fact. It surveys his daily routine in Murray Bridge in South Australia, too, where he now lives with a carer so that he can get western medicine's help. It also follows him to appointments, then watches on as he weathers his treatments.
In her thoughtful, contemplative, affectionate and astute approach, Reynolds lets her audience peer deeply and listen intently. Her film favours soaking, basking and ruminating over clapping and cheering, and it was always going to be all the better for it. Marking and commemorating Gulpilil's many achievements is important, and his feats should and will rightly be remembered and saluted — but even the most vivid collection of clips and most enthusiastic rundown of his awards and other successes can only convey part of his story. There's just nothing like just passing the minutes with Gulpilil, especially when he stares directly at the camera, dives into his memories and unleashes one of his many sprawling but powerful tales. There's also nothing like facing him, taking in all that he's done for Aussie cinema and Indigenous representation, and simultaneously confronting the fact that he's unlikely to brighten up our screens again.
My Name Is Gulpilil is many things, including a clear-eyed picture of a man trying to navigate terminal cancer and everything that comes with it — and it doesn't shy away from that reality at any turn. Just as moving and pivotal is its commitment to showing Gulpilil's approach to the end that awaits us all. By choosing to live in Murray Bridge to undergo treatment, he chooses to live away from Country, a decision that visibly haunts him. So, he prepares for what he describes as a one-way ticket home by planning. He spins his hair into fibre, and talks through the ceremony that will farewell both his body and spirit. For Reynolds, he poses in a coffin beneath unspooled reels of film. There's playfulness in the latter image, but such a forthright approach to death never comes as a surprise. When My Name Is Gulpilil addresses Gulpilil's time in the long grass, his run-ins with the law and his addictions, mentioning them alongside his trip to Cannes, meeting with the Queen, and interactions with everyone from Muhammad Ali to Bob Marley, the film is similarly frank and unflinching.
My Name Is Gulpilil does still feature glimpses of its namesake's movies, of course. Given the wealth of material at hand — spanning plenty of the aforementioned titles, plus plenty more — no ode to Gulpilil would be complete without clips here and there. Just as Reynolds ensures that her audience genuinely takes in his inimitable presence, his culture, his health, and his ups and downs, she finds poetic ways to segue from archival and film footage to present-day scenes and back, putting them all to the most meaningful use. With editor Tania Nehme's (ShoPaapaa) considerable help, this documentary proves an act of cinematic weaving, rather than unfurling. It knows when to watch Gulpilil and an emu walk the same dusty path, when quiet reflection from the man himself is in order, and when snippets of his candour and charm from his 2004 one-man autobiographical stage show are needed instead. It's also well aware that no one will ever get the chance to make this movie again, and that only a film of astounding intimacy, honesty and insight could ever do the face of Australian cinema justice.