Isolation is one of the dominant themes in Charlie's Country. Set largely in a remote Aboriginal Australian "outstation" (also known as a "homeland") community, the film conveys the difficulty Charlie has connecting with the people around him. Although he seems to know everyone around him, he spends much of his time alone, interacting briefly with a couple of friends who almost always have to find him. Charlie's sense of isolation from his community and himself becomes more intense as the film goes on. Walking deep into the bush until he is entirely alone, Charlie nearly dies. He continues to feel isolated from his surroundings when he has to go to a hospital in Darwin. Although he makes a superficial connection with an unhoused woman in the city, they remain isolated from each other while drinking to excess. It is only after his isolation becomes unbearable in prison that Charlie decides to return to his community and reconnect to other people on a spiritual level by teaching young men how to dance in the traditional Yolngu way.
Disappearing Cultural Practices
The theme of disappearing cultural practices is another major theme in Charlie's Country. Although the homeland communities like the one Charlie lives in are supposed to give Aboriginal Australians an opportunity to self-govern and revive traditions that government-enforced assimilation tried to erase, the police don't allow Charlie to hunt as tradition dictates, leaving him no choice but to put up with eating the "white man junk food" available. Old Lulu is concerned about younger generations forgetting their culture, and tries throughout the narrative to convince Charlie to teach young men how to dance. Charlie resists the idea because he grieves losing the glory he felt when performing for the Queen as a boy. At the end of the film, he finally agrees to pass on the cultural practice by teaching the young men how to dance, ensuring that the traditional knowledge will not die with him.
The theme of racist hostility is portrayed in the movie chiefly through the tension between Charlie and Officer Luke. Although the men greet each other with familiarity at the beginning of the film, jokingly referring to each other as "white bastard" and "black bastard," the animus beneath the apparently benign interaction festers. Charlie resents the condescension he feels from the police, who use him to track criminals and give him nothing but grief in return for his help. After Luke confiscates Charlie's hunting tools, Charlie is provoked into rebelling by stealing a cop car and hiding out in the bush. It isn't until several scenes later that Luke returns to confront Charlie, violently assaulting and arresting him. Luke calls him a "black bastard" again, but this time there is no hint of playfulness, only the officer's prejudice on full display.
Ongoing Settler Colonialism
Set in an Aboriginal community in Australia, the film explores conflicts that arise from the ongoing relationship between the land's Indigenous inhabitants and the white settler majority. Colonized by England, the territory now known as Australia was once the exclusive home of diverse groups of Aboriginal inhabitants. In Charlie's Country, the negative consequences of colonization are shown through the poverty, poor health outcomes, addiction, police harassment, and lack of political and economic power associated with Charlie's life in his outstation community. Although some people will argue that colonization is something that happened in the past, Charlie's ability to live a fulfilling life continues to be impacted by the ongoing colonial attitudes of the white settlers, who treat Charlie and other Aboriginals paternalistically with contempt. Charlie is treated as a foreigner in his own land, displaced from the traditional culture of his people, a culture which government assimilation policies actively sought to destroy. Ultimately, the film uses the theme to paint an unflattering portrait of how entitled white settlers continue to treat Aboriginal Australians.
Another one of the film's major themes is addiction to substances such as alcohol, cannabis, and tobacco. Early in the film, Charlie walks past the police station in his community. In his native language, Charlie reprimands white settlers for bringing alcohol, tobacco, and "ganja" to Australia, since these addictive substances have contributed to social and health issues within the Aboriginal community. Charlie has quit smoking because of his damaged lungs, but the addiction maintains its hold over him, conveyed through his continuing to ask people for cigarettes, which he contemplates smoking before throwing in his fire. "Ganja" (cannabis) is also an issue in the community, with white dealers coming through to deal, at exploitative prices, to Charlie and his friends. Alcohol presents the most complex issue for the community. While some Aboriginal people see the prohibition in the area as a positive restriction, Charlie's experience in Darwin buying alcohol for banned problem drinkers shows how prohibition laws such as Australia's can penalize people (disproportionally Indigenous) while doing nothing to address the social and economic issues that lead to and exacerbate addiction. Ultimately, Charlie's Country shows how white settlers' vices contribute to the loss of Indigenous culture.
Deteriorating Health Conditions
The deteriorating health conditions Charlie and several other men his age in the community experience is another of the film's dominant themes. Early in the film, Charlie visits the doctor, a belittling experience that shows how people living in remote communities like Charlie's are underserved when it comes to healthcare and nutrition. The doctor encourages Charlie to eat better—an ignorant piece of advice given that only "white man junk food" is sold in his community. The doctor also reminds Charlie not to smoke, as his lungs have been damaged from decades of addiction to a substance introduced by white settlers. Charlie asks to have his teeth examined, and the doctor rudely reminds him he isn't a dentist and so Charlie will have to wait for a dentist to visit the community in several weeks. Charlie is frightened of the idea that he, like so many other elders, might die in a hospital in Darwin, far from his community. After going hungry, Charlie attempts to take his health into his own hands by living in the bush and hunting for "bush tucker" that his ancestors would have eaten. However, his health deteriorates even further in the bush, as he cannot secure enough sustenance to survive. He winds up in Darwin, where he finds an elder from his community with kidney trouble who is slowly dying in a hospital.
Importance of Community
The final and perhaps most important of the major themes in Charlie's Country is the importance of community. Throughout the film, Charlie is emotionally isolated from himself and physically isolated from the people around him. Although he is by no means a hermit, walking through his community handing out cash in a spirit of generosity, he barely engages with anyone when he does so. The few conversations Charlie has occur usually when he is sitting alone in front of his fire; it is always people coming to him to talk, and never him going to them. Charlie's disconnection from his community intensifies when he goes into the bush to live on his own, and intensifies further when he is in the hospital. Charlie briefly finds a group of people to connect with in Darwin, but their alcoholism stands in the way of a deeper connection with each other, leaving Charlie to sit and stare into the distance even when surrounded by others. Charlie is at his most disconnected from the community when in prison. The monotony of his life behind bars strips him of his personality. Even when his best friend Pete comes to visit, Charlie doesn't utter a word. The theme of the importance of community is underscored by the film's ending. Upon return to his community, Charlie finally agrees to teach the young men how to dance. The film closes with Charlie engaging his mind, body, and spirit in the rhythmic and mesmerizing dance ritual, passing on knowledge that will ensure his culture stays alive among his people.
Charlie’s Country Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Charlie’s Country is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.