Opening in Australian cinemas 27 May
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Molly Reynolds’ feature-length documentary My Name Is Gulpilil may not be quite what you expect. While it does feature clips from many movies the remarkable actor David Gulpilil has appeared in, from his one-man show, and from his life as documented by news crews and others over the course of a big career, it is not, nor does it aspire to be, a comprehensive study of that career. Rather, this is an intimate, melancholic and poetic portrait of a dying man.
Gulpilil was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer in 2017, prompting Reynolds to begin making a film with him, an opportunity for him to tell ‘my story of my story’. The expected narrative was that Gulpilil would plan his funeral, return to his country – Arnhem Land – and die, and the film would end with his death ceremonies. But Gulpilil is still alive, and his stubborn survival thwarted the narrative, allowing Reynolds to, perhaps, over-indulge in what she describes as ‘the luxury of crafting increasingly fantastical shots and of accruing the most remarkable footage’.
Some of that footage is indeed beautiful – the opening shot is jaw-dropping, so good I had to rewind my screener and watch it again – but there is a lot of it, and the film meanders, reflecting, I suppose, the strange limbo both filmmaker and subject found themselves in, while potentially testing our patience. More immediately engaging material includes much of day-to-day living with Gulpilil and his carer Mary Hood, who quietly asserts herself as an indomitable silent witness and extraordinary ‘background’ character: you don’t realise the film is about her and David’s relationship until the film itself does.