The man with two lives

ABORIGINAL ACTOR David Gulpilil is a household name in Australia as a movie star — and as a man caught up in a real-life role reflecting his country's tragic culture clash.­ Despite a glittering career in film, Gulpilil's high-profile brushes with the law on alcohol

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Published: Mon 5 Feb 2007, 10:51 AM

Last updated: Sat 4 Apr 2015, 11:58 PM

aborginand weapons offences underscore the plight of the indigenous people 200 years after the arrival of the first settlers.­ In 1987, the now 54-year-old star of films such as 'Walkabout' in 1971 and international hits such as 'Crocodile Dundee' was honoured with the Australia Medal for his contribution to the arts.­

In 2002, New York Times critic Stephen Holden lauded Gulpilil's performance in director Rolf de Heer's 'The Tracker', highlighting his "aura of mystical watchfulness and omniscience".­

His latest venture, 'Ten Canoes', won the Special Jury Prize at the 2006 Cannes Festival.­

But on January 10 he seemed a fragile, isolated figure in the magistrate's court in the far northern city of Darwin, capital of the Northern Territory, as he answered charges of brandishing a machete during a drunken scuffle.­

He was acquitted after arguing that the machete was not a weapon but a tool he carried for cultural reasons, such as making didgeridoo musical instruments, carvings and bush tents.­

But it was a narrow escape for the actor, who spent time in prison for drinking offences in 2000.­

After that, he entered a form of rehab unknown to his more glamorous counterparts in Hollywood who take to five-star resorts to dry out after periods of excessive substance abuse: Gulpilil switched cultures.­

Abandoning the city, Gulpilil achieved sobriety by returning to his remote traditional home at Ramingining in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, a vast swathe of what is known as the 'outback'.­

It is home to many of the 470,000 Aborigines who make up a tiny percentage of Australia's population of some 20 million, most of whom live along the coast in booming modern cities.­

Official statistics released last month show that non-indigenous Australians live longer than most people in the world but that Aborigines have a vastly lower life expectancy than the settler population.­

They also have much higher rates of infant mortality, health problems and suicide, with many living in squalid camps where unemployment, alcoholism and lawlessness are rife.­

Waymamba Gaykamangu, an indigenous lecturer at the Northern Territory's Charles Darwin University, has followed Gulpilil's woes with cautious sympathy.­

"He's living two lives," she said. "He should be a role model for his group and other clan groups. He wants to be a film star. He's doing damage to himself."­

Gulpilil's Arnhem Land retreat was followed by two critical successes — 'The Tracker' and Phillip Noyce's 'Rabbit-Proof Fence' in which he once again starred in a story of Aboriginal suffering under colonial administration — raising hopes that he had beaten the demons that plague him.­

'Ten Canoes' is in some ways his crowning achievement, although he never appears on screen. Director and friend Rolf de Heer acknowledges it as a film conceived by Gulpilil, who is the narrator.­

Set in the wetlands of Arnhem Land a thousand years ago, it gives a hauntingly beautiful glimpse of the life of his ancestors, spinning a love tale with a comic touch. It is the first feature film in an indigenous Australian language.­

Waymamba recognises that it is through film that Gulpilil advances indigenous rights, yet says living in that world is dangerous for him.­

"When people get famous they're in a similar situation. He wants to be respected by balanda (white people)," she said.­

The day he was cleared of the weapons charge, Gulpilil appeared a new man as he met a throng of journalists outside the court, spruce in a brown leather jacket with a red bandana holding back his mop of frizzy hair.­

"I am happy," he exclaimed. "I love Australia and I love you people. That (machete) is my tool, not a weapon, a tool for my survival."

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