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David Gulpilil

David Gulpilil
Gulpilil in 2006
Born David Gulparil Gulpilil
(1953-07-01) 1 July 1953
Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia
Years active 1971–2013
Spouse(s) Robyn Djunginy (?-2003)
Miriam Ashley (2004-present)
Website .comgulpilil

David Gulpilil Ridjimiraril Dalaithngu[1] AM (born 1 July 1953), is an Indigenous Australian traditional dancer and actor.


  • Early life 1
  • First film 2
  • Life in the arts 3
  • Honours and awards 4
  • Legal cases 5
    • Offensive weapons charges 5.1
    • Domestic violence charges 5.2
  • Gulpilil today 6
  • Filmography 7
    • Special awards 7.1
  • References 8
  • External links 9

Early life

He is a Yolngu man of the Mandhalpuyngu speech of the Djinba language.[2] As a young boy, Gulpilil was an accomplished hunter, tracker and ceremonial dancer. Unlike many Indigenous people of his generation, Gulpilil spent his childhood in the bush, outside the range of non-Aboriginal influences.[3] There he received a traditional upbringing in the care of his family. He attended the school at Maningrida in Australia's North East Arnhem Land. When he came of age, Gulpilil was initiated into the Mandhalpuyngu tribal group. His skin group totemic animal is the eagle and his homeland is Marwuyu. After appearing in his first film, he added English to several indigenous languages in which he was already fluent.[4]

First film

In 1969, Gulpilil's extraordinary skill as a tribal dancer caught the attention of British filmmaker Nicolas Roeg, who had come to Maningrida scouting locations for a forthcoming film. Roeg promptly cast the sixteen-year-old unknown to play a principal role in his internationally acclaimed motion picture Walkabout, released in 1971. Gulpilil's on-screen charisma, combined with his exceptional acting and dancing skills, was such that he became an instant national and international celebrity. He travelled to distant lands, mingled with famous people and was presented to heads of state.[4] During these travels to promote the film, he met and was impressed with John Lennon, Bob Marley, Muhammad Ali and Bruce Lee.

Life in the arts

After his high-profile performance in Walkabout, Gulpilil went on to appear in many more films and television productions. He played a lead role in the commercially successful and critically acclaimed Storm Boy (1976).[5] He "dominated" the film The Last Wave (1977), with his performance as tribal Aboriginal man Chris Lee.[5]

He sang a role in the sole recording (1973) of Margaret Sutherland's 1964 opera The Young Kabbarli.

Perhaps the most renowned traditional dancer in his country, he has organised troupes of dancers and musicians and has performed at festivals throughout Australia, including the prestigious Darwin Australia Day Eisteddfod dance competition, which he won four times.[4]

In addition to his career in dance, music, film and television, Gulpilil is also an acclaimed storyteller. He has written the text for two volumes of children's stories based on Yolngu beliefs. These books also feature photographs and drawings by Australian artists and convey Gulpilil's reverence for the landscape, people and traditional culture of his homeland. Gulpilil's latest artistic triumph is his appearance in an autobiographical stage production in March 2004 at the Adelaide Festival of Arts 2004.

Honours and awards

Gulpilil was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in 1987.[6] He was awarded the Centenary Medal in 2001.[7]

In May 2014, Gulpilil won a Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival for his performance in Rolf de Heer’s film Charlie's Country. The award was in the Un Certain Regard section, a part of the festival that emphasises original, individual points of view and innovative film-making.[8][9]

Legal cases

Offensive weapons charges

On 9 July 2006, Gulpilil was staying at the home of Vaughan Williams in Darwin, when an argument started over his drinking (Williams' home had a "no alcohol policy").[10] Williams asked Gulpilil, his wife and their friend (referred to as "JJ") to leave his home. During the argument, Williams and his friend allegedly armed themselves with a totem pole and a garden hoe. In response, Gulpilil produced a machete.[11]

Nobody was hurt in the altercation, however Gulpilil was charged with carrying an offensive weapon. On 10 January 2007, he was found not guilty, as the machete was deemed to be for cultural use. The magistrate found:

The defendant is an artist and a carver. He used the machete to carve didgeridoos, totem poles and strip stringy bark for paintings, [...] There is also evidence he used it to help him build shelters while out bush, like he had done shortly before arriving in Darwin.
— Magistrate Tanya Fong Lim, [12]

Domestic violence charges

On 30 March 2007, a Darwin magistrate imposed a 12-month domestic violence order against Gulpilil over an incident which took place against his wife on 28 December 2006. Gulpilil has been ordered not to "assault or threaten to assault Miriam Ashley directly or indirectly", and to stay away from her while drinking.[13]

In December 2010, Gulpilil was charged with aggravated assault against Ashley, with the court hearing that he had thrown a broom at her, fracturing her arm. In September 2011, he was found guilty and sentenced to twelve months in prison.[14]

Gulpilil today

At a conference in Adelaide in the summer of 2000, Gulpilil performed traditional dances and shared his recovery story with hundreds of indigenous young people. He continues to provide mentorship to them, while lending his support to social and political causes such as the pursuit of tribal land claims for indigenous people. He joins other Australian artists in calling for government recognition of, and compensation for, the suffering of the "Stolen Generation" - children of mixed European and Aboriginal parentage who were forcibly removed from their indigenous families and placed in mission schools or with white adoptive parents far from their kin and homelands.

A documentary about his life, Gulpilil: One Red Blood, was aired on Australian Broadcasting Corporation in 2003. The title comes from a quote by Gulpilil: “We are all one blood. No matter where we are from, we are all one blood, the same”.

A portrait of Gulpilil by Craig Ruddy won the 2004 Archibald Prize, Australia's best known art prize.

Gulpilil has been a major creative influence throughout his life in both dance and film. He initiated and narrated his recent film, Ten Canoes which won a Special Jury Prize at the 2006 Cannes Festival. The prize-winning, low-budget film, based on 1,000-year-old traditional story of misplaced love and revenge, features non-professional indigenous actors speaking their local language. Gulpilil collaborated with the director, Rolf de Heer, urging him to make the film, and although he ultimately withdrew from a central role in the project for "complex reasons,"[15] Gulpilil also provided the voice of the storyteller for the film. De Heer directed Gulpilil in another film, The Tracker (2002).

In 2007, he starred in Richard Friar's hour-long independent documentary, Think About It! which was focussed on indigenous rights and the anti-war movement and included commentary from former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, former Greens leader Bob Brown, and Guantanamo Bay detainee David Hicks.[16][17]

He also had a major role in Baz Luhrmann's Australia (2008).


Year Film Role Notes
1971 Walkabout Black boy Credited as David Gumpilil
1976 Mad Dog Morgan Billy
Storm Boy Fingerbone Bill Nominated—AACTA Award for Best Actor
1977 The Last Wave Chris Lee
1983 The Right Stuff Aborigine
1986 "Crocodile" Dundee Neville Bell
1987 Dark Age Adjaral
2001 Serenades Rainman
2002 The Tracker The Tracker AACTA Award for Best Actor
Cinemanila International Film Festival Award for Best Actor
FCCA Award for Best Actor
Inside Film Award for Best Actor
Rabbit-Proof Fence Moodoo Nominated—AACTA Award for Best Supporting Actor
2005 The Proposition Jacko
2006 Ten Canoes The Storyteller
2008 Australia King George
2013 Satellite Boy Jagamarra
2014 Charlie's Country Charlie AACTA Award for Best Actor
Cannes Film Festival Un Certain Regard for Best Actor
Nominated—AACTA Award for Best Original Screenplay (with Rolf de Heer)
Nominated—Asia Pacific Screen Award for Best Actor

Special awards


  1. ^ [according to credits of Ten Canoes]
  2. ^ Biography
  3. ^ Sunday Life
  4. ^ a b c National Archives of Australia 2008.
  5. ^ a b Pike, Andrew and Cooper, Ross (1998). Australian Film 1900-1977: A guide to feature film production. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.
  6. ^ It's an Honour: AM. Retrieved 14 March 2015
  7. ^ It's an Honour: Centenary Medal. Retrieved 14 March 2015
  8. ^ Bunbury, Stephanie (24 May 2014). "Australian actor David Gulpilil wins best actor award at Cannes Film Festival". The Age. Fairfax Media. Retrieved 24 May 2014. 
  9. ^ "Un Certain Regard 2014 Awards". Festival de Cannes 2014. Retrieved 23 May 2014. 
  10. ^ Gulpilil had right to carry machete, court told. 08/01/2007. ABC News Online
  11. ^ I grabbed machete in fear: Gulpilil - National -
  12. ^ Gulpilil machete accepted to be for 'cultural use' |
  13. ^ Domestic violence order on Gulpilil - National -
  14. ^ Gulpilil jailed for assaulting wife, ABC News, 22 September 2011.
  15. ^ untitled
  16. ^ Joining the dots along the chain of war by Steve Burrell (Sydney Morning Herald, 14 July 2007)
  17. ^ Gulpilil says give peace a chance (Northern Rivers Echo, 16 February 2007)

External links

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