For #AUSgust – the Australian Film Month – I’ve decided to write about a film that I saw for the first time only recently. It’s seventeen years old, and I have no idea why I haven’t seen it by now. It was recently put on my list of films to watch, which at this point is never-ending, by a friend and as it was streaming on SBS on demand I decided to prioritise it.
Rolf De Heer’s 2002 film The Tracker, set in 1922 follows three white men as they use an Aboriginal Tracker to find another Indigenous man that is accused of committing murder. With first rate performances, direction, cinematography and music, it is a beautiful film. It’s a shame it took me seventeen years to watch it for the first time.
What took me by surprise, was that a film from 2002 was unafraid to explore the true Indigenous history of this country, whereas most other films at the time avoid such themes. Only recently with films such as Sweet Country and The Nightingale have these themes been consistently explored. Although Simon Wincer’s 1990 effort Quigley Down Under surely included this history, but whenever the film is on as the midday or evening movie, certain themes seem to be cut.
The characters in The Tracker are timeless, and sadly modern society has proven this. The Fanatic, Gary Sweet, is todays right-wing-neo-nazi, using the internet to try and prove that skin colour transcends intelligence, but only proving that even though he’s learnt to use technology, his mindset hasn’t evolved one bit. The Veteran, played by Grant Page, has been around, he’s seen it all. While the Fanatic is killing Aboriginal people left, right and centre, The Veteran sit’s back and relaxes. He’s not for, or against First Nations people, just not going to engage in their deaths. Today, when seeing the fanatics trolling on face book, rather than put a stop to it, he’d maybe write the following: I don’t see colour. If he saw an employer sexual harass an employee, or his mate smack his partner, he’d sit back and say, not my problem.
And then there is The Follower, played by Damon Gameau. The Follower has no idea about the real world, and before he can find his own path, he treads in another’s, in this case the Fanatic’s. But after observing things around him and learning for himself, he sways from that path and becomes his own man, making his own decisions. Today’s ‘fanatic’ looks at him as an SJW or someone obsessed with political correctness.
Finally, we have The Tracker himself, played perfectly by David Gulpilil. He uses his wit to save himself from lashings and bashings, his knowledge of the land to fight for him self and his people.
The Tracker was very well received critically with it being described as Imposing, Important, Beautifully filmed, and stunning by several Australian critics. But it took me until reading Roger Ebert’s review until I could find one that I really related to. He described it as haunting. From the perspective of an Indigenous man (me) that is exactly what it was. The history of Aboriginal people is something that is not talked about and to see it here in this film, from almost twenty years ago was something I wasn’t expecting. It was very confronting at times.
Another aspect of the film that was quite amazing was the cinematography by Ian Jones. I would imagine that it would be hard to stuff it up when shooting in the outback, with all that wonderful scenery, but some of the shots I noticed were quite brilliant. One in particular came in the first ten minutes of the film. The three white characters awoke, and all stood next to each other in order of age, almost as if they were son, father, and Grandfather, and they shaved. In the outback, in the middle of a ‘police chase’, they took the time to shave. Ian Jones shot them all lined up, showing perfectly how civilised and equal they were. The next shot, looked down at The Tracker, sitting in the dirt, in rags for clothes, an awful mess. Then again, up to these men, all shaving and being civil.
The dialogue was also fantastic. Almost every part of the Fanatic’s dialogue alluded to his power, over the Follower, the Veteran, and his Tracker. He exerted power with every word he spoke and even when his death seems like it is only moments away, while begging for his own life, everything he says points to the power that he, a white man, has over a black man.
Aboriginal musician Archie Roach sang on the soundtrack, the songs were about the films content and events, fitting the tone perfectly. It was a really unique way of doing a score and complimented the film in every way. But what really took my breath away, was the use of art. Whenever something violent was happening to Indigenous people, the screen would then display art while keeping the sound going. The art depicted what was happening in the scene and was a really poignant way to make the film, again, unique. Socially that idea really made sense as well, as whenever we look back at Aboriginal history in Australia, we’re told that nothing significant really happened while in actual fact, it was genocide. Australia is still in denial about this. So, using artwork to cover up the violence was truly clever, especially considering this film was made nearly two decades ago. Director Rolf De Heer has made several films based on Aboriginal culture or themes, and as a child refugee with his family before finding their way to Australia, it seems De Heer is not fooled by Australia’s ignorance towards Aboriginal history.
I am not alone in the way The Tracker made me feel, after a discussion with another First Nations man, Radio Producer and Artist Christopher Crebbin, we discovered we both had similar feelings. The Tracker is imposing, it is important, it is beautiful, but most of all, it is haunting.
Director: Rolf de Heer
Cast: David Guliplil, Gary Sweet, Damon Gameau, Grant Page
Writer: Rolf de Heer