Friday, July 3, 2009

Film review: Bastardy

Director: Amiel Courtin-Wilson
Country: Australia
Year: 2008 (documentary)

“When you’re pushed out on stage, that’s when you’re born” Jack Charles

Indigenous actor Jack Charles is a rare sort of fellow and his story quite remarkable. Captured in documentary form by director Amiel Courtin-Wilson (Chasing Buddha) over the course of seven years it’s hard to say how close you come to knowing what really makes Charles tick, he’s a master of charisma yet slave to vice. Unflinchingly and candid from beginning to end with one uncomfortable exception, and yet nothing short of an enigma; Bastardy presents one of the most fascinatingly understated portraits of a man in recent memory.

As a prolific actor who starred on screen and stage and is credited as having set up the first Aboriginal theatre company in the 1960s one expects a certain sense of the theatrical around Charles. Life started out that way too. A member of the The Stolen Generation might have been the first really drama he experienced and an onscreen credit at the end of the film tells us it is dedicated to those who have been “lost and found.” The allusion is clear, this isn’t just about those who fall on hard times and find themselves in the homeless nether-regions of the living; ghosts before death even comes for them.

But that’s the bigger picture and Bastardy is much more concerned with the personal and the intimate. Down the years Charles appeared on the big screen in films like The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), Bedevil (1993) and Blackfellas (1993), in private he was a thief and a drug addicted – albeit the most charming bloke to invade you home, helping himself to whatever he might be able to maintain the lifestyle he’d grown accustomed – even if that was chasing the next fix.

Charles seemingly has given director Courtin-Wilson full access to his life, we see him shooting up heroin to which he displays no physical reaction – a skill born of years of addiction. Later the pair take a trip to a Melbourne suburb, home to the upper-class and a happy hunting ground for Charles’ exploits in cat-burglary. We see the alleyways and toilets he has slept in and hear about relationships gone wrong. All of it is so honest and without self-pity, yet there’s a sparkle of regret in his eyes that betrays the bravado. He is intelligent, kind, philosophical and a quite beautiful blues singer. There never a dull moment around Charles and the effect he has on the thesps and crew he meets on set at an acting gig or the drunks on a street bench – encounters with this man are always seem enriching experiences.

Bastardy navigates the ere tricky line of documenting the subject and becomes involved with the story. Incredible in many ways given the intoxicating bitter-sweetness of Charles’ life, his gentle demeanour and wise eloquence. A genuinely rewarding film in which you could talk about the skilled execution of the editing and the beauty of some of the photography at great length, but in the end all you’ll care about is Jack Charles, a charming rogue who’ll stay with you long after he’s left the screen.

Scott Henderson