Film review – Bastardy (2008)

Jack Charles
Jack Charles

The Indigenous Australian actor Jack Charles, the subject of the documentary Bastardy, is a remarkable man. He founded the first Aboriginal theatre company in the 1960s and has worked prolifically in Australian theatre and television plus having significant roles in the films The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), Bedevil (1993) and Blackfellas (1993). He’s an articulate, intelligent and compassionate man who can also sing beautifully as well as act and is something of a part-time philosopher. He’s also homeless, a long-term heroin user and house burglar. Filmmaker Amiel Courtin-Wilson followed Jack for seven years and the result is this extraordinary film.

Jack allows Amiel full access to his life and speaks candidly about his one true love, being homeless and the joys of acting. When discussing his drug use and his robberies (he favours the upper-middle-class Melbourne suburbs of Balwyn and Kew since the people there can probably cover it) he doesn’t speak with any bravado or self-pity but with a genuine honesty and slight sense of self-deprecation. Despite recounting some very sad stories about attitudes towards Aboriginal people, Jack is not an angry man either. Despite the insight into his life that this film provides, Jack is still something of a mystery. This enigmatic quality is matched by the superb cinematography and editing that combine raw documentary footage, clips from Jack’s films and beautifully composed stylised shots that often have no specific narrative importance but establish the tone of the film. The result is a film that blurs the boundary between documentary and video art. Bastardy is a fascinating and engaging film about a complex, flawed and extremely likeable man.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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  1. Yes, I must say I found him a fascinating character, though I’ve not seen the film yet. I recognised him from Tom White and stopped him in the street one lunch-time, about 5 years ago. He’s a very eloquent talker and can talk and talk and talk. He seemed as comfortable with me as I was with him. I had no idea about his colourful history.

  2. During the doco we actually see Jack get the call to appear in Tom White and it has a really amazing effect on him, as he clearly relishes being able to act again.

    We’re interviewing Jack and Amiel on “The Casting Counch” this coming Saturday and I’m really looking to chatting with them. So if you get a chance, tune into JOY 94.9 from 5pm-7pm (UTC/GMT +10). The actual interview should take place around 6:10pm. I’ll also put a link up on the Cinema Autopsy home page during the show if you want to stream it live.

  3. I asked Jack about that role and he was full of praise for Alkinos Tsilimidos (the director). He only had a small part but it was quite electric; he has such a presence and that hair! The whole film is full of really interesting characters.

    What about a podcast that can bed downloaded and listened to another time? Otherwise, I’ll try to catch the live stream.

  4. I really loved Tom White and think it deserves more exposure and recognition than it gets.

    We haven’t got podcasts yet but I am assured that they are on their way. In fact, they should be available in a matter of weeks, if not days. The show this Saturday should be one of the first shows to be podcast. Even if not then at least the interview with Jack and Amiel will be made available for download.

    Once we are up and running with the podcasts I will certainly be announcing them here!

  5. I’ve been surprised how little recognition and appreciation Tom White received. That year (2003), it had 13 AFI nominations and didn’t win one – every single one went to Somersault, the only other film in contention that year (it was a very thin year for local films). Toby Oliver’s sublime photography did, however, win the Cinematographer’s top award and I think it may have also won some other industry awards (the AFIs are not a particularly good indicator of film excellence).

    For me, Tom White was a real eye-opener. I’d never seen a Tsilimidos film and so had no expectations. Tsilimidos is about the only director who knows how to use Bill Hunter to excellent effect and at that time I thought it was his best ever role. That is, until I saw Tsilimidos’ first film, Everynight, everynight…

  6. Tom White is still the only Tsilimidos film I have seen and I really must get around to watching his other films.

    The AFI Awards really, really, really annoyed me in 2003. Tom White was absurdly overlook and even though, as you say, Australian films were thin that year, it was ridiculous how much praise was heaped upon Somersault. It was an OK film at best. I saw it on opening night at MIFF and I remember sensing that the whole audience felt this incredible sense of disappointment with it, especially considering how much interest had been generated prior to the screening. Anyway, I don’t want to keep on bashing Somersault but it is a profoundly overrated film.

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