David Gulpilil — An elder summons us to listen

David Gulpilil in My Name is Gulpilil
David Gulpilil in My Name is Gulpilil

My Name is Gulpilil
Directed by Molly Reynolds
In cinemas

David Gulpilil is dying. The celebrated Yolngu actor and dancer was diagnosed with lung cancer and emphysema in 2017 and has lingered longer than the six-month prognosis that he originally received.

This documentary is his testament, giving witness to his triumphs as an actor and traditional dancer and his suffering as an Aboriginal Australian. Gulpilil invites us deep into his soul.

Produced by Peter Djigirr and Rolf de Heer, it was begun with every expectation that it would reach screens after his death, but after years of filming it was decided to complete it.

Gulpilil was a teenager when British director Nicholas Roeg cast him in the 1971 film, Walkabout. Roeg was looking for someone who could dance, hunt and sing. When he asked the kids at the Arnhem Land Maningrida mission school, they all pointed to Gulpilil.

Gulpilil went on to make more than 20 films and 12 TV shows. He says that he finds acting easy: “I just walk in and the camera finds me.”

He still commands the camera, looking straight down the lens at the audience. He says this film is about him, he controls it; it is his story that he is telling before his death.

Here is an elder of the Australian continent and we have been summoned to hear him. He explains his Yolngu culture and reflects on the walking in two worlds that his fame has brought him. He is proud of his culture and frank about his difficulties.

Besides acting, he has directed dance productions and a one-man stage show. He has won innumerable accolades, including three AFI awards and one Cannes Festival Best Actor awards; the latest being a 2019 NAIDOC lifetime achievement award.

He is also an accomplished traditional singer and painter.

As he reminisces, scenes from his many films and TV interviews pass by showing his memories. Not all are pleasant. Gulpilil describes himself as an alcoholic and he has served time in gaol because of drunken domestic violence.

In stark contrast to scenes of his vigorous and skilful hunting and dancing, the film reveals the present-day Gulpilil as so frail that the only exercise he is capable of is a daily walk to the letterbox.

This is a gently paced film that draws the viewer in from the first scene where Gulpilil demonstrates his remarkable connection with an emu.

Don’t plan on going out partying after seeing My Name is Gulpilil. This film is to be savoured and contemplated long after leaving the cinema.