David Dalaithngu was a pioneer of the “rock star” who was an inspiration to native actors and filmmakers.

During one of his last public appearances for the Adelaide Festival premiere of My name is Gulpilil in March, an audience of 1,500 gave him a one-minute standing ovation when he arrived on stage in a seemingly frail wheelchair. He stood up and, in an unexpected speech, said to them: “Today I will think of you and you will think of me”.

Writer, director and cinematographer Warwick Thornton, whose work includes Samson & Delilah, Sweet country and the next TV series Fire bite, described Dalaithngu as “a rock star without a band”.

“He was the most enigmatic legend, just a empowering person,” he said. “Whether he was walking around the room or standing in front of a camera, he was just taking control of everything; he had it.

“He was a truly genuine human being, who struggled in life and made the most of it.”

Thornton described Dalaithngu as “a leader” for being one of the first indigenous people on screen in the 1970s.

“For us to play ourselves, to be recognized that we are part of this country, was so empowering, because before that there were only kookaburras and didgeridoos,” he said. “His legacy will live on. The body can die, but the spirit will never die.

Indigenous writer-director Ivan Sen called Dalaithngu, who starred in his film Gold stone, an icon.

“When you cast him, he brings to the role a whole story not only of film culture, but of the country as well,” he said. “That’s the thing with cinema: it’s immortality, so his presence is going to continue and he is going to continue to shape this country through the work that he has done.”

Sen said part of Dalaithngu’s rich talent is how he can communicate non-verbally on screen.

“He didn’t have to say things,” he said. “He communicated with his eyes. There are a few roles where the screenwriter didn’t give him much weight, but he delivered that weight through his visual and physical presence.

Sen, whose other films include Under the clouds and Mystery Route, said seeing Dalaithngu in Storm boy was a source of inspiration for an Indigenous child.

The acclaimed writer, director and actor Leah Purcell for the film Drover’s wife, the legend of Molly Johnson, said she learned the subtlety of Dalaithngu.

“It was only when I looked [him] that you are going to ‘play it’, ”she said. “There will never be another David … his intelligence, his knowledge, his insolence.”

“Whether he was walking around the room or standing in front of a camera, he was just taking control of everything”: David Dalaithngu.Credit:Heidrun lohr

There have been tributes from non-Indigenous filmmakers including Baz Luhrmann, who called him “a unique person and a unique Australian,” and Phillip Noyce, who called him “the world’s most important incarnation. of Australian Aboriginal Culture for 50 Years ”and“ A Treasure ”.

Director Rolf de Heer, who collaborated with Dalaithngu on ten canoes, The tracker and Charlie’s country, called him a really great actor with a “strange ability to interact with the camera and treat her like a friend”.

Olympic track star Cathy Freeman tweeted “Thanks for the inspiration.” Nicole Kidman, who starred with him in Australia, called his death “deeply, deeply sad” and said it was “an honor to know him and to work with him”. Co-star Hugh Jackman said he had joined Australians around the world in mourning the loss of a man whose “contribution to cinema was immeasurable”.

Knowing that the end was near, of Heer and his partner Molly Reynolds, who realized My name is Gulpilil, undertook to send him back to his beloved country, Gulparil in the land of Arnhem.

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Email the writer at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @gmaddox.


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