The cross-cultural friendship between award-winning filmmakers Matthew Thorne and Derik Lynch has deep echoes of Rolf de Heer and David Gulpilil in the making of Charlie’s Country. By Neha Kale.
Derik Lynch is an acclaimed Yankunytjatjara actor, singer and storyteller known for his roles in the 2011 play Namatjira, the television sketch comedy show Black Comedy and the 2022 sci-fi web series Bunker: The Last Fleet. He met Matthew Thorne, an award-winning director and photographer, on the dance floor at the Adelaide Fringe Festival in 2019. Their friendship sparked Marungka tjalatjunu (Dipped in Black), a short film that follows Lynch’s return to his remote Aṉangu community to perform on sacred Inma ground.
In February, Marungka tjalatjunu saw Lynch become the first Aboriginal to win theSilver Bear Jury Prize (Short Film) at the 73rd Berlin International Film Festival. The film, which also won the Teddy Queer Film Award, takes cues from the collaboration between Dutch–Australian filmmaker Rolf de Heer and late Yolŋu actor David Gulpilil. Both Lynch and Thorne were inspired by de Heer’s 2013 film Charlie’s Country, in which Gulpilil gives an extraordinary performance as Charlie. And they say rewatching Charlie’s Country after they made Marungka tjalatjunu cast their own relationship in a new light.
Charlie’s Country follows Charlie as he moves out of a remote community and
attempts to live back on Country. What impression did it make on you?
DL I saw it when it fi rst came out. After doing our film, I thought, “Wow” – everything is so
similar. It talks about Country and culture and passing it down. It talks about health. It talks
about food. I love it because it’s so detailed about how his people live. The struggle that
we have to go through in order to survive.
MT I had been making Derik’s version of Charlie’s Country and just didn’t realise.
Charlie’s Country is rooted in the friendship between Rolf de Heer and
David Gulpilil, who co-wrote the film, in part, while serving a prison term. To me,
de Heer captures Gulpilil’s emotional weather with real intimacy and depth.
MT I think what David and Rolf did together in that fi lm is incredibly special. It is
important that Aboriginal filmmakers have the opportunity to make their own films. But
there’s something in the middle that I think Rolf and David do – they find a way to talk
together. That is really important as well. There are people in your life that you share a
really deep, family connection with. It’s easy to imagine those deep connections to be warm
and fuzzy but often those connections are incredibly difficult. My relationship with Derik
is incredibly difficult. He is my family. The depth of the connection I feel to him is the
only reason we could make the film.
DL Trust is a very big thing. In this country, Aboriginal people, we got everything taken
off us. We are still fighting to this day for our rights. To find someone like Matt is very rare.
In Charlie’s Country, David as a blackfella trusted Rolf.
It sounds like trust is central to your work together as part of Dipped in Black.
DL At the beginning, it was difficult. When we started writing this script together, I was in
this headspace of I want to do a documentary – like on SBS. I did not understand Matthew’s
MT We are bridging huge divides. We are bridging a white and Black divide. We are bridging different histories of storytelling. You are not even aware that you are attempting to do
those things because you meet on a dance floor and enjoy each other’s company. And to unwind this ball of shit that is colonial Australia, you have to start touching all these things.
I remember the first time we went up to Derik’s Country. We started talking really
honestly and I just started crying and crying and crying. Derik started talking about his
lack of trust in white people and I started talking about my shame. I want to connect
with Country and culture and don’t know how or realise why. There are many moments like
that. The things I have learned working with Derik changed my life.
Charlie’s Country portrays the spiritual pull of Country. It opens in North-East
Arnhem Land and depicts the lushness of the place, the green rainforest and
MT When I was watching that sequence, I had chills running down my spine. The big thing
I learned on Country with Derik is the magic is very real. I don’t know enough of it to speak
on, but it is there.
DL Country and connection to land is very important to Aboriginal people. It is where
your story is, where you come from, where your people are – that tradition has to be
passed on. In Charlie’s Country, David wanted to go home because he is connected to his
ancestors. I go home when I feel drained. It’s beautiful because you can sit by yourself and
connect to the land with no traffic. I go up to the sand dunes and watch the sunset. Many
people from Central Australia come down to Adelaide for medical treatment. [But] they
don’t want to be in the city. They want to be on Country because that’s where they feel safe.
MT In Adelaide, after David passed away and people were allowed to use his name again,
his family talked about his special role as a man living between two worlds. Derik is not
just a man living in the whitefella world. He is also living in culture. And he is living in a third
world, which is queer culture.
What did Charlie’s Country show you about the nature of that struggle between
DL The white world was a huge struggle. Taking the queer and the white world back to
my culture. How do I tell my family? How do I come out? In my world there are multiple worlds. I come from nine different language groups. Each language group has its own culture and protocols. I went to school every day and learned about whitefella systems. I had to
go through many things that young children shouldn’t see. So mental health is huge. It’s
not, Yeah, get over it. Then in my early career I believed a lot of people because they want me to exploit my culture and my language. It took me a very long time to trust again. I don’t care about all of those things, but I care about keeping my culture and language alive. I don’t care if I got the Silver Bear. People say, “You are famous, you have a lot of money in your
bank account.” I still live in a housing trust. Whitefellas still look at me different, I’m still
lower than the lower caste. Immigrants are treated better than the First Nations people.
MT It is a prison reality for all involved. How sad for white people – to be born on
this incredible country and all you can think about is how much money you have. That
is our prison and it is a prison we enforce on Aboriginal people. I don’t think white
Australia ever grew out of being convicts. That is as true for [Anthony] Albanese as it is true
for me. And unfortunately, my belief is until there is Treaty, white people will always be
When Charlie is in the bush, his health deteriorates and he is hospitalised in
Darwin. Later scenes evoke the Northern Territory intervention. But the film’s
careful pacing never sensationalises...
MT It doesn’t need to do anything else. The horrors that are in that story of how that character, that man, is treated speak for itself. I would not be here as a filmmaker making the
films that I am without Rolf de Heer.
DL I have been in the same room as David. And people are like, you should go up and say
hello! He [was] a national treasure.