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TRACKER, THE (director/writer/producer: Rolf de Heer; cinematographer: Ian Jones; editor: Tania Nehme; music: Rolf de Heer; cast: David Gulpilil (Tracker), Gary Sweet (Fanatic), Damon Gameau (Young Policeman Follower), Grant Page (Veteran), Noel Wilton (Fugitive); Runtime: 98; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Julie Ryan; ArtMattan Productions; 2002-Australia)
“Kept me engrossed.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Experimental film director-writer Rolf de Heer (“Dance Me to My Song”-1997) had written the treatment to The Tracker in one day ten years earlier, whose theme touches a nerve about the racism existing between the Aborigines and white colonizers. It was commissioned by the Adelaide Festival of Arts for its 2002 film program. De Heer also wrote the lyrics to ten original folk songs for the music and melody written beforehand by composer Graham Tardif. It’s sung with great feeling by Aboriginal folk-rocker Archie Roach as the songs were haunting calls for freedom that smoothly complement the visuals, in a film where the dialogue was kept to the bare minimum. There were also fourteen primitive Aboriginal paintings by landscape painter Peter Coad effectively shown for effect after a particularly grueling scene. They added another dimension to the violence experienced by the indigenous Australians.

The film kept me engrossed despite its slight storyline and the grating way it depicted in an overly charged manner the villainous bigot, who was a thoroughly wretched creature without any redeeming human features.

Though the story is fictional, it serves as an historical reminder of the past racism.

The film is set circa 1922 somewhere in the Australian outback (it was shot in the Flinders Range in the South Australian outback at Araroola, a private wildlife sanctuary in a semi-desert region), where four governmental representatives are on the hunt for a black fugitive (Wilton) who is accused of murdering a white woman. We will later learn he is innocent. In charge of the operation is the smug officer obsessed with his call to duty, who aims to get the black man at any cost. He’s known only as the Fanatic (Gary Sweet). The one called the Follower (Damon Gameau) is a young fresh-faced recruit, a uniformed policeman new to this region and wide-eyed about the chase. He loves to play on his ukulele to the annoyance of the Fanatic. The third white man, the Veteran (Grant Page), has been drafted to join the expedition and is not happy about the duty but keeps his thoughts bottled up. They are led to the fugitive by a mysterious full-blooded Aborigine tracker (David Gulpilil-the veteran actor who starred in the 1969 Walkabout as well as the recent Rabbit Proof Fence), who keeps to himself how he feels about the mission and white people–and because he’s the only one comfortable with his surroundings, is really leading the others.

Ranting on about the White Man’s Burden he’s obliged to honor and how trustworthy the white man is compared to the shifty black man, the racist Fanatic stops only to kill innocent blacks, harass his sometimes giddy and sometimes stone-faced tracker with racial comments, and bully the other two into getting more with the racist program.

The fugitive has a half-day lead and is barely seen throughout the chase, as the story turns its attentions to the souring relations developing among the hunters. The cause of the strife is the Fanatic, who angers all of the others by his ill-advised actions. The Tracker is put in chains around his neck and made to walk ahead as if he were a slave, all because he vanished for a while at night to hunt a rabbit. When the Veteran is speared by a tribe of Bushmen (No, not the president!), he’s cruelly left behind by the leader to die because he’s slowing them down. At last, the Follower has it with his leader when without cause he kills an innocent old man simply because he’s black. At that point the Follower comes-of-age to the dangers of racism, as he leads a mutiny and for that the filmmaker spares him the fate of the other whites and he’s allowed to return to his community as someone reborn with a better understanding of the other race. Ironically both the fugitive and the Fanatic must face jungle justice, as the film doles out its Solomon-like wisdom by mixing both a Christian and native tribal call for absolution.

Gulpilil’s commanding appearance as the iconic face of the long-suffering Aborigine and his mesmerizing appeal because of his humanity, give this film the moral balance and eloquence it was reaching for. The Tracker’s understanding that there’s good and evil in those of both races, speaks the universal tongue of a visual poetry that needs no words to be understood.

REVIEWED ON 1/12/2004 GRADE: B +

Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”