At just 17, when David Dalaithngu first landed in Europe, he was the darling of the city, a young and handsome Aboriginal film actor from the remote Northern Territory who barely spoke English.
Cameras loved it and fans flocked to catch a glimpse of this new star.
Almost five decades later, the world is now saying goodbye to a prolific trailblazer who walked high in two cultures and starred in iconic Australian films Crocodile Dundee, Rabbit Proof Fence, Storm Boy, Walkabout, The Tracker and many more. others.
Arnhem Land actor, dancer and painter Yolngu has died at the age of 68.
Several years ago, Dalaithngu was diagnosed with lung cancer. He resided at Murray Bridge in South Australia.
During a roller coaster career spanning 1971 to 2018, Dalaithngu transformed Australian cinema.
He opened the eyes of audiences in the Western world to strong and positive portrayals of Aboriginal Australia and ultimately became, as Phillip Noyce, the director of Rabbit Proof Fence has dubbed it, “arguably the best film actor. most experienced and accomplished in Australia ”.
“I thought I would be a cowboy, like John Wayne”
As a teenager, Dalaithngu was already considered the best traditional dancer in the Arnhem Land community in Maningrida.
In 1969, his dancing prowess saw him discovered by British filmmaker Nicolas Roeg and chosen for a key role in his avant-garde outback film, Walkabout.
“I thought I was going to be a cowboy in a movie, like John Wayne,” Dalaithngu told director Darlene Johnson for the documentary One Red Blood in 2002.
During his first feature film, Dalaithngu spoke little English, having grown up speaking several indigenous languages.
But he was natural in front of the camera, exuding, as actor Jack Thompson once said, something “dynamically attractive and sexy.”
Until then, his beginnings had been spent in the bush, hunting, dancing and studying at the school of Maningrida.
“The first time I saw white people, I didn’t know where they were from: I thought it was a ghost, all painted white,” Dalaithngu said in One Red Blood.
One of his classmates from Maningrida, Don Wilton, remembered a young man who “would go hunting with his father, and he was also a great hunter.”
“[Dalaithngu] had no english name, so we gave it that english [first] name, in 1965 or 66, “Wilton told ABC in Maningrida.
Shortly after his experience on Walkabout, the Western world exploded in color before him.
He flew to Europe, where he met Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace, along with Bruce Lee, and traveled to France to walk the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival.
But he was still a man firmly anchored in two worlds when he was not on set or traveling to attend galas or premiere awards, Dalaithngu could often be found with family around the remote community of Ramingining, more than 500 kilometers from Darwin.
“We’ve seen a lot of American movies, you know like westerns, cowboys, spies and all that, but [Dalaithngu] was doing it the traditional way, the aboriginal way, ”said Wilton.
Actor a breakthrough for aboriginal Australia
Dalaithngu’s early films were a breakthrough in many ways.
He offered the world a big-screen portrayal of his Yolngu culture unlike anything cinema audiences had ever seen.
“[He] has been absolutely essential in portraying modern Australia in film, which is, after all, the greatest art form in the world, ”academic Marcia Langton once said.
In 1986, Crocodile Dundee, one of the largest exports of Australian films to the US market and a film he would later describe as “bullshit,” Dalaithngu played the role of Neville Bell, a city-dweller tribal man who was returned to the Top End to perform a ceremony with his family.
In Storm Boy (1976) he was the lovable Fingerbone Bill, a role through which he captivated schoolchildren across the country, who saw him teaching his traditional knowledge to a little South Australian boy in the Coorong.
In Rabbit Proof Fence in 2002, he was the steel-eyed, state-sponsored stalker Moodoo responsible for tracking down three little girls of the Stolen Generation who had escaped from an encampment.
In the cult film Mad Dog Morgan (1976), he played an offside of the main character of Dennis Hopper, a savage bushranger causing chaos in the Victorian bush.
In 2008, he starred in Baz Luhrmann’s romantic epic Australia, filmed in the Kimberley, in which he played an Aboriginal elder named King George.
The Order of Australia medal recipient got his first lead role in director Rolf de Heer’s 2002 outback opus The Tracker.
His long and curvy cinematic biography also included Australian cinematic gems like Satellite Boy, The Last Wave, Goldstone, and The Proposition.
He was also known for his appearances on television shows such as Homicide, Boney and Matlock.
According to his own testimonies, Dalaithngu also dabbled in the world of celebrity excess, he partied with the Beatle John Lennon, smoked weed with Bob Marley and had “crazy” moments with Hopper.
For him, playing the part could be “a piece of cake”.
Wrestling with demons in recent years
Some of his best and most important cinematic works have been a series of films shot by de Heer, starting with The Tracker, up to Ten Canoes which he recounted and leading up to the semi-autobiographical film Charlie’s Country, which s ‘is focused on the challenges of modern Aboriginal life. lived between NT towns and the Arnhem Land bush.
These challenges were often too real for Dalaithngu.
After being introduced to grog and ganja on the set of Walkabout as a teenager, the actor struggled his entire life with the demon of alcoholism.
It was a struggle that took him to his lowest times: camping out in the tall grass as a homeless person in Darwin and being thrown into Berrimah prison in the NT for assaulting his wife.
Although he earned hundreds of thousands of dollars for his movie roles, he was sometimes left penniless, living in a hut built out of corrugated iron he’d salvaged at the tip.
“Big name, no cover.”
Never lost the link with the language, the country, the song
In his later years, public appearances and movie roles became rarer.
In 2013, he danced on stage at the National Indigenous Music Awards in Darwin, featuring a post-prison figure smaller than the tall, curly and powerful figure he once featured.
In 2018, due to ill health, he was forced to retire from a starring role in High Ground, director Stephen Johnson’s backcountry epic starring Jack Thompson, which will ultimately be released in 2020.
In recent years, rumors of her lung cancer have persisted.
In 2019, Dalaithngu received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the annual NAIDOC Awards.
His daughters accepted the award on his behalf, due to his fragility.
In a video acceptance speech in which he revealed he was dying of cancer, a grizzled Dalaithngu told the audience: “Everyone, thank you for watching me, I will always remember from you even though I am now gone forever. “
In 2021, Dalaithngu appeared in what has been billed as his swan song, a documentary about his life.
Narrated by Dalaithngu himself and directed by another of his longtime collaborators, Molly Reynolds, married to De Heer, the film chronicles his life and his singular achievements as an Australian actor.
In the film, visibly ill as he is cared for around the clock at Murray Bridge, he appears as a man appeased by his connection to a rich tradition and culture, at ease with his own mortality.
A Yolngu man and initiate of the Mandhalpuyngu, Dalaithngu has never lost his connection with language, song, law and country.
“Where is the promised land, there is Mandhalpuyngu.”
He is survived by his family in Ramingining, Maningrida and Darwin.
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