The film Charlie’s Country opens with a still shot of an old black and white sign that explains the area down the road has liquor restriction laws, and one must have a permit to carry alcohol.
Charlie, the film’s protagonist, sits cross-legged in a makeshift shelter made of bug screens. He removes reading glasses and reads a letter that is creased from being folded and read over and over. Charlie is a slim, dark-skinned Yolngu (Aboriginal Australian) man. His hair is scraggly and hangs loosely around his head. His beard is white. He hums to himself. He wears a plaid western shirt with the sleeves removed, showing his veiny arms.
Charlie puts on his shoes and removes his shelter. Birdsong is the only ambient sound. He walks past a smoking fire. Someone greets him, referring to him as Pops. Charlie walks down the road. He is tall and wears blue jeans. He passes the police station. In his language, he shouts, “You come from far away and bring us alcohol, ganja, tobacco… all bad!” When a white police officer, Luke, emerges, Charlie says "g’day" in English. Luke says it back. Charlie adds, “You white bastard,” while smiling. Luke replies “You black bastard.” Both men laugh and wish each other a good day.
Charlie collects cash from a window in an office where other Aboriginal people are lined up. He is mildly disappointed there isn’t more. Charlie runs into Pete, a garbage truck driver. He keeps walking and hands cash to a man standing with a young boy. Charlie passes a table of people and hands out another note. After leaving the store Charlie takes cigarettes out of the packet of a young man, who tells him not to take so many. Charlie seems to know everyone in such a casual way that they do not address each other with greetings.
At evening, Charlie sits on the ground before a small fire. He slowly, ritually drops a cigarette in the flame. He takes the other two from his pocket and throws them in. He mutters to himself while watching them burn. The next day he talks to himself about the sort of house he wants while looking at a modest metal-sided single-floor dwelling. He says he wants a place like that. At evening again, Charlie sits before his small smoky fire and contemplates his surroundings. He is alone while voices can be heard interacting with each other in the near distance.
Charlie sits outside a structure made out of a shipping container. He sighs and moves anxiously. He enters and is told to sit down by a white man. Charlie tells the man he wants a house. The white man, Harold, says the government has already given him a house. Charlie tells him he has a house and a job on Charlie’s land. Charlie asks where is his house. Where is his land. Harold asks if there is anything else he wants. Charlie says “Nah,” and leaves.
Charlie stands in line for food at a buffet. In the next shot he is outside his dwelling, cooking on the fire. Pete drives up in a different vehicle and asks Charlie to come hunting. His garbage truck broke down and he is waiting on a new one to come from Darwin.
To start the rundown vehicle, Charlie jams a large stick into the engine. Pete starts it and the men drive off happily. Glass bottles shake in the vehicle as they pilot the bumpy rural road. Pete stops and the men run out into the bush with shotguns. They disappear, and shortly after there is the sound of gunshots. Then a large animal seems to come alive again. The men have to shoot the animal again. They are happy.
Pete and Charlie drive back with a wild bull on their hood, tied down. Pete jokes that it’s wrecking his car. They discuss how they are hungry for meat and are pleased because there’s a lot of meat on the animal. Police stop them on the road. Pete and Charlie seem cautious but not overly worried.
A white officer tells Charlie to get out. He assumes the jug on Charlie’s lap is alcohol. Charlie says it is petrol. The officer inspects the car, removing their shotguns. He asks if they have a license. Charlie and Pete are smiling and defiant: they joke that they’re not going to drive them, they’re going to shoot them. Pete and Charlie walk out of the police station slightly disheartened by also resigned in their body language. They discuss how the cops have their guns, Pete’s truck, and their meat. Charlie says it’ll soon stink up the station and they both laugh happily.
The liquor-restriction sign that opens Charlie’s Country is a visual means of bringing the audience into the “outstation” or “homeland” community in which much of the film is set. It simultaneously introduces the major themes of isolation, ongoing settler colonialism, substance abuse, and deteriorating health conditions.
A remote settlement in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory of Australia, the community Charlie lives in is one of a few hundred Aboriginal Australian settlements in the country. Created in part to give Aboriginal Australians a greater opportunity to establish self-determination and self-governance, the communities can have different laws than the rest of the country. In this instance, liquor is prohibited in the area to curb alcoholism and its associated health and social issues. The prohibition sign also foreshadows tensions between the local Aboriginal community and white settler law enforcement.
After entering the community, the camera focuses its attention on Charlie, the film’s protagonist. A solitary figure, Charlie spends much of his time alone, although there is always the sound of other people from the community nearby, one of whom calls him “Pops,” signaling his status as an elder with whom people are casually familiar. He has a similar familiarity with officer Luke, a white policeman whom Charlie jokingly calls a “white bastard.” Luke responds by calling Charlie “black bastard,” an exchange that hints at the racial animus that characterizes their relationship as colonized and colonizer.
After collecting an allowance of cash from a community office, Charlie proceeds to give bills away. His actions may seem ironic given his apparent poverty and the fact that he was disappointed there wasn’t more money. However, the scene illustrates how Charlie’s relationship with money defies Western ideals of personal wealth hoarding. Charlie understands money as something to be shared freely among his community, even though it means he winds up broke and starving before the next delivery of cash comes his way.
The theme of ongoing settler colonialism arises again when Charlie goes to the shipping container office to ask a white administrator for a job and a house. The man patronizingly reminds Charlie they have already given him enough. When Charlie points out the hypocrisy of a white man like him having a job and house on Charlie’s land, the man refuses to indulge the line of reasoning; he is unwilling to entertain Charlie’s valid argument against the ongoing injustice of colonial occupation of Charlie’s traditional territory.
Tensions between white administrators of the settlement and the Aboriginals who live there continue with Charlie’s and Pete’s thwarted hunting trip. Having no money for food, Charlie takes the practical measure of hunting a wild bull to provide meat for himself and many others in the community. However, that he and Pete don’t have licenses for their guns means their weapons, truck, and kill are confiscated. Although the situation may seem deeply unjust to the audience, Charlie and Pete maintain casual body language and playful attitudes throughout the interaction. They amuse themselves with the idea that the animal will stink up the police station, showing how they retain their dignity and resilience despite being treated unfairly.