Voice and Viewpoint in Charlie’s Country

by Annie Heckman


How can we connect our authors’ reflections on interpretation, narrative, voice, and viewpoint with some highlights gleaned from my obsessive film-viewing? Charlie’s Country (Rolf de Heer, 2013) screened at the Toronto International Film Festival this weekend. The film opens on warm, sharp footage of Charlie (David Gulpilil) sitting on the ground by his home, holding a tattered photo. Charlie moves slowly and confidently in the landscape, into the nearby town, giggling as he calls the police white bastards on the way. He goes hunting with his friend, shoots an enormous buffalo, and has to give up the animal and guns to the police, who confiscate them and let the bountiful food source rot at the station. Charlie is delighted that maggots will soon take over. Set in an aboriginal community in Australia’s Northern Territory, the film takes the viewer along with Charlie throughout, sometimes in actual point-of-view shots, sometimes just holding him in close focus or walking alongside him on the road, continually telling the story from his viewpoint. His laughter peppers the soundtrack, whether things go well, or poorly, but especially when he plays tricks on the police. Throughout the film, Charlie reminds us, sometimes shouting and sometimes under his breath, that this is his land, that they stole it and built a police station on it, and then they took away his things. His viewpoint becomes our viewpoint; his voice is in our ears. When Charlie fell asleep onscreen, I even exited my filmgoer thinking for a moment and thought, “If he’s going to sleep, I’m going to sleep. I’ll wake up when he does.” 

One day the police confiscate a spear that Charlie has carved from a branch, and shortly after this humiliation he quietly steals a police car and loads it up with groceries, driving away from his home, determined to ‘go bush, go bush’. We know that Charlie has great talent as a dancer, coveted as a teacher by local kids, but he’s determined not to teach. Staying tucked away in the woods by himself, he becomes ill and worn down in the rain, sleeping in harsh conditions until he’s discovered and flown to a hospital in Darwin, the closest large city. When Charlie recovers and leaves the hospital, he meets a woman who asks him to buy her alcohol, and then stays with her group of friends in their home, a city park subject to frequent raids. When the police do come to tear apart the makeshift settlement, Charlie storms their car with a shovel, smashing the windshield, setting the final events of the film in motion. My reaction as Charlie rushed to the car was sadness, guessing the consequences and difficulty of response in a drunken state, but I also experienced a sort of clarity about Charlie’s right to do this, in this context— he had presented his perspective throughout the film: this is my home, they’re stealing things from me, that was my gun, they took my land and built a police station on it, and then they took my things. They steal everything. Such is the power of the point of view presented in the film that when I saw the police raid Charlie’s space in the park it resonated with me as though I were watching them drive directly into a family’s living room for no reason. 

Charlie’s Country is in some sense a very accurate film that tells its distinct truths — a reflection on the conditions of aboriginal life in that region, a specific part of the Australian landscape, a lens on the history of colonialism in Australia, a comment on the human condition. All these truths are fictive, in Megill’s terms, inasmuch as they they generalize or rely on categories. At the same time, in its singularity with Charlie’s life events, the film is a fiction, a realistic drama rather than a documentary or any other purportedly nonfiction genre, that carries us persuasively because of a stylistic believability as it follows a character through his daily life. We could turn to this film as a point of departure for all our texts, but here I will focus on Robert Berkhofer’s work considering voice and viewpoints in historical practice. 

In this film, or in any film following a main character closely throughout, it would be too simple to say that we hear the story through that character’s voice, from that character’s perspective. This would be an oversimplification, as even the camera is in dialogue with the subject at any given moment, and the musical score will sing back and forth with the expressions on a character’s face; even the most sparse compositions are polyvalent and polyvocal in film. For the sake of addressing certain of Berkhofer’s examples, however, we can think of Charlie as the person who is mainly telling the story, and from whose perspective the story emerges — in this sense, Charlie’s character is our visible and audible narrator. We know, for example, that women do not speak very much in this film — we hear from just a few women in the town interacting with Charlie, from the woman he lives with later in the film, and from his parole officer — and in fact the film would fail the famous Bechdel test. Director de Hoff’s close collaboration with actor David Gulpilil helps explain why, according to other audience members at the screening that day, it’s easy to forget that this is actually not a documentary, and moreover the authority for the story seems to issue from Charlie so strongly that the director as implied author of the work slips out of view from time to time. 

Turning to Berkhofer’s text to understand the emphasis on Charlie’s viewpoint, we find that he repeatedly points to the complexity of trying to represent multiple viewpoints, and he critiques one work in particular to demonstrate the problems that can arise. In his critique of historian Patricia Limerick’s The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West, an attempt to integrate previously repressed voices and viewpoints into this history, Berkhofer, through numerous examples, expresses that Limerick points to the lightbulb but doesn’t turn on the light — she expresses a moral imperative for a methodology that supports multiple voices, a perspective that does not take any voices for granted, and yet her voice is in the background as the integrative authority in the text. Limerick uses the metaphor of a subway system: each station is its own center, its own node or hub, but one can imagine the viewpoint from any station and at the same time hold the whole system in mind. This metaphor describes her integrative approach to layering multiple viewpoints in the text. Without critiquing Limerick’s work further in any way, I would like to take the subway map as a starting point for thinking through this great rhizomatic incorporation project that Berkhofer problematizes.

Charlie’s Country would have me wondering, to what extent would I have joined Charlie, empathically, if his viewpoint had been one of these nodes, a stop on the subway system in a neat package with other social actors? Without immersing myself, for a  mere 100 minutes or so, in the voice and viewpoint of one character, would I have this experience of sitting in a theater, watching Charlie hit a windshield with a shovel, thinking “get out of Charlie’s home”? It seems that a work which moves to incorporate multiple voices could also allow them each to approach coherence. Perhaps our western academic problems with coherence (see Megill) are not enough reason to split voices with a prism. A historical writing aiming to decentralize the authorial voice, which includes multiple voices with the purpose of manifesting their integration into a western historiographical schema of hierarchy and comparison, basically uses these voices to legitimize the same system it is purporting to unravel or question. It ignores the fact that these voices which have been suppressed, ignored, or otherwise excluded, all have grounds for their own full narratives, with the potential for some of the problems that accompany coherence — there are all levels of worldview and self-reflection that belong to each of those voices. And when these histories are to be interpreted in a dominant language like English, a language which is bound up with the very hierarchies our authors describe, then rather than splitting narratives in any way that further obfuscates, the use of English language could be elegant and frame histories clearly given the efforts many make around the world, often under considerable pressures, to join in dialogue through this language. I would further imagine that any attempt to interpret and integrate previously suppressed voices should include contact that goes beyond textual engagement whenever possible; that is to say, one doesn’t have to guess as much about a cultural group’s context in the 19th century if one is engaging with living members in a fruitful way during the 21st century. It would mean that in our approach to history, we could consider it necessary, and a pleasure, to be in a real dialogue with each source, treating texts through the hermeneutic openness Gadamer describes, rather than cataloguing them for a methodological imperative on diversity, and genuinely considering the depth of thinking belonging to each voice. How could we approach this with openness and encourage rich histories from multiple perspectives, without falling into the traps Berkhofer points out?

Related works:
“Introduction” to Gadamer and Gadamer’s “Hermeneutics as Practical Philosophy” in After Philosophy: End or Transformation? ed. K. Bagnes, J. Bohman, T. McCarthy, MIT Press, 1987, pages 319-338

Megill, “Grand Narratives and the Discipline of History” and Berkhofer, “A Point of View of Viewpoints in Historical Practice” in A New Philosophy of History, ed. Frank Ankersmit and Hans Kellner, U. Chicago Press, 1995, pages 151-191