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The Tracker (2002)
Writer and director: Rolf de Heer

review by Amy Harlib

Experienced Australian film director Rolf de Heer (Bad Boy Bubby, Dance Me To My Song, among others), commissioned by the Adelaide Festival of the Arts, locus of its world premiere, won numerous down-under Oscar equivalents for his 2002 opus, The Tracker. This deserving picture getting shown in New York City for the first time in the prestigious Centrepiece spot on the programme of the African Diaspora Film Festival, 28 November to 14 December 2003, complements and inevitably invokes comparisons to Rabbit Proof Fence.

Both productions share early 20th century period settings and examine the politically and socially charged themes of the egregious racism and colonialism influencing the relationships between blacks and whites in Australia and both even feature internationally renowned aboriginal actor David Gulpilil portraying a tracker embodying distinctly different variations of that role in each. These two worthy pictures represent an encouraging trend to deal with vital issues in artistic and entertaining ways and ought to be seen by the widest possible audiences though their painfully honest content constrains marketability to limited art house distribution - better than nothing.

The Tracker, taking place in 1922, 'somewhere in Australia', entirely in the outback, concerns an aboriginal tracker (Gulpilil) on foot, guiding three men of European descent - two law officers and one civilian, on horseback - on the trail of a fugitive aboriginal accused of murdering a white woman. Everything happens in a spectacular, rugged environment that becomes as much a character as the human beings (the locations being entirely within the Arakaroola Wilderness Sanctuary in South Australia).

Director de Heer cleverly constructs his narrative to surprise the audience and to get them to question expectations beginning with his opening the film with the hunt already in progress. Brief introductory titles serve to introduce the otherwise nameless characters: the 'little known' eponymous Tracker; the Fanatic (Gary Sweet); the Follower (a sterling debut for Damon Gameau); and the Veteran (Grant Page, Australia's most famous stuntman in a rare, meaty thespian turn). We do not get told how the searchers were assembled, and we rarely glimpse the fleeing quarry (Noel Wilton) allegedly guilty of the crime already mentioned. Subsequent events bringing out the various aspects of humanity each person embodies, enhanced by the unusual and ingenious use of songs to counterpoint and comment on the story. Composed by Graham Tardif with lyrics by the director-scripter, the 10 songs sprinkled throughout the film, performed by gravely voiced, aboriginal, celebrity folk artist Archie Roach create spine-tingling, plangent, haunting moods by to perfection.

Another distinguishing aspect of The Tracker, de Heer's innovative elimination of Hollywood-style depictions of gross-out violence and substituting naïve-style, impressionistic, earth-tone paintings by artist Peter Coad, creates memorable images. These painted scenes occur several times during The Tracker when the Fanatic massacres peaceful aboriginals or when the other characters defend themselves in various extreme ways. When the static canvases appear, they get accompanied by the dynamic sound effects of shots and screams - an effective and affecting alternative to graphic gore that still provokes the wrenching, desired emotional responses while communicating the idea that the painted renderings will serve to record crucial events to remind posterity of past wrongs.

While the tale unfolds, it gradually becomes evident that the Tracker, in his subtle, quiet way, successfully fulfils his agenda to subvert the mission and to take charge of events. This is done in an utterly believable manner, thanks to the skill of the actors and the pacing. The four players all excel, Gulpilil's patient gravitas, sly humour, profound intelligence and spirited convictions balancing out: Sweet's Fanatic's relentless, racist self-righteousness and deluded rationalisations, tempered by Page's Veteran's quiet go along and get along attempts to survive and Gameau's Follower's awkward innocence replaced by sudden maturation and the wisdom to take a stand against his superior officer's atrocities.

The Tracker paradoxically dazzles with its gritty realism, just four guys wearing simple, functional work clothes getting grubbier with their activities juxtaposed against the breathtaking, awesomely beautiful landscapes underscored by the soulful soundtrack. Superb performances and Ian Jones' excellent camerawork added to the just-mentioned virtues makes for a superlative cinematic drama of man's inhumanity to man handled with boldness, intelligence and emotional resonance. This picture, by portraying human nature in all its facets, offers hope that along side the worst can also be found the best; that higher spiritual potential can lie at the hearts of all people yet all too often proves lacking. The Tracker, a wonderful film on so many levels, needs to find the largest possible audience to be engrossed and captivated while being enlightened.

Too bad that The Tracker won't be distributed (in January 2004), with the 52-minute documentary shown with the feature at the African Diaspora Film Festival. Totally complementary and synergistically entertaining when screened together with the full-length piece, Gulpilil: One Red Blood directed by Darlene Johnson in 2002, tells actor David Gulpilil's life story, chronicling his career from his non-English speaking tribal origins through his emergence as an international film star.

We see the subject's simple and unpretentious but demanding life in aboriginal Arnhem Land in Australia's Northern Territory where he adroitly manages community obligations with the pressures of his fame and performing profession. One Red Blood records initial triumphs in Walkabout and Storm Boy among others, a period of neglect in the 1980s, and success again in the 1990s to the present with the acclaimed features Rabbit Proof Fence and The Tracker. Relatives, friends and colleagues all get to comment on various aspects of Gulpilil's life. We come away full of admiration and respect for this extraordinary, charismatic, amazingly talented, attractive man - the pride of aboriginals, all of Australia and the rest of the world. One Red Blood offers a fine documentary account of an exemplary human being who never lets adulation get to him and who always remains down to earth and close to his people and his roots.
The Tracker

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David Gulpilil, One Red Blood

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