In the 1976 classic Storm Boy, the great actor Yolu David Dalaithngu delivers a line that has been immortalized in Australian cinema. Bird like him, never die, he said, describing the pelican Mr. Percival.
The substance of this line can be applied to man himself, who will live through the light and shadow of cinema, on which he has left a permanent and inimitable impression.
Despite all the language we use to describe the movies, there really are no words to accurately express how Dalaithngu changed the movies and how he changed us. The actor passed away on Monday after being diagnosed with lung cancer in 2017. As I said in my review of his latest film, Molly Reynolds’ Incredible Documentary, he was like a portal to a different way of to think, a different way of being, even a different state of consciousness.
Dalaithngus ‘decisive role was in British director Nicolas Roegs’ hallucinogenic movie Walkabout of 1971, in which two young white siblings (Jenny Agutter and Luke Roeg) roam the outback after their father’s death. They meet Dalaithngu, who provides the emotional heart of the drama with a warm, touching and fresh performance, and an irresistibly cheeky glow in her eyes that has never completely faded all these years later, even in her final illness-ravaged years. .
In the second half of the 1970s, Dalaithngu appeared in other classics of the Australian New Wave. In Mad Dog Morgan, he played the titular bushranger’s partner in crime, infamously played by Dennis Hopper. In Storm Boy, who adapted Colin Thieles’ classic children’s book, Dalaithngu was the enigmatic Fingerbone, who at one point recites a spiritual story about pelicans with all the weight of film behind him, with director Henri Safran cutting trees, crashing waves and returning to Dalaithngu dancing, which was magical every time you saw it.
Continuing the theme of water, which runs through all of his work, the actor played another mysterious character in Peter Weirs The Last Wave, materializing from the protagonists’ dreams to reflect on how a dream is a shadow. of something real.
Dalaithngus’ work is peppered with modest but memorable performances. The truncated nature of many of his representations gives his work a fragmentary character which, like this interview published in Sense of cinema attests it, was also reflected in his way of speaking, his answers to the questions being often indirect and fragmentary, but also by constantly making surprising connections, with a capacity at all times to be of a striking lucidity.
It’s a great shame for the Australian film industry and a testament to its long-standing whiteness that Dalaithngu didn’t have more opportunities as a lead actor, which he so deserved. Rolf de Heers 2002 meat pie western The Tracker was the first feature film to star him; he played the main character, accompanying the police as they slowly walked through the wilderness in pursuit of an accused murderer.
A more impressive production, with a richer and more expansive leading performance from Dalaithngu, was Charlies Country 2013, for which he won the Best Actor award at the 2014 Cannes film festival. De Heer directed the film, which Dalaithngu has co-wrote, after visiting the actor in prison; Dalaithngu had been found guilty of assaulting his partner.
On several occasions, the late artist spoke of alcohol and substance abuse that occurred throughout his life, comparing beer to put your brain in a freezer and marijuana to enjoy a morning fog.
During his prison visit, De Heer discovered that Dalaithngu was ill, fragile and as the filmmaker expressed it in a 2015 interview seemed to have lost interest in life. When he played a semi-autobiographical version of himself in Charlies Country, the cheeky glow in Dalaithngus’s eye had grown into something deeper, steeped in gravity and pathos.
In another world, the film is said to have sparked a career rebirth for Dalaithngu, ultimately leading to a period in which he secured lead role after lead role. It wasn’t meant to be.
His later work brought him back to small roles, in films such as the zombie flick Cargo and the neo-western Goldstone. His last performance in a narrative feature film playing Finbergone’s father Bill in the 2019 Storm Boy remake had a cyclical quality, evoking memories of an earlier and more triumphant period of his career.
If a bird like him would never die applied to David Dalaithngu, the form of bird he would take might be a kingfisher. In Molly Reynolds’ documentary, the actor explains that his name, which his family has asked not to use at this time, means kingfisher. Therefore, as he explained, his name is in the trees, in the fish, in the sky, in the stars, in the storm.
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