Overhearing Ten Canoes, The Tracker and Charlie’s Country: Theology in dialogue with the collaborative films of Rolf de Heer and David Gulpilil

Katherine Rainger

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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Australian films and filmmakers have received little attention in film and theology research. In response to this situation, this thesis provides a theological dialogue with the work of filmmakers Rolf de Heer and David Gulpilil. De Heer and Gulpilil’s body of work includes The Tracker (2002), Ten Canoes (2006) and Charlie’s Country (2013). These films can be classified as both Fourth Cinema and Intercultural Cinema. Barry Barclay’s seminal work defines Fourth Cinema as films that foreground the perspectives, stories and cultural norms of First Nations Peoples. The Intercultural component is evident in the diverse backgrounds of non-Indigenous director Rolf de Heer and Indigenous lead actor and co-writer David Gulpilil. The films’ content includes Indigenous storytelling which is made accessible for a non-Indigenous audience.

The categories of Fourth and Intercultural Cinema, as well as detailed analysis of the films, establish the key themes that guide the theological dialogue contained in this thesis. Themes include the importance of place as a marker of identity for Indigenous peoples, the devastating effects of colonial violence, and race relations in Northern Australia in the present. The primary interlocutor chosen for this research is the theologian Willie James Jennings. Jennings’ work highlights Christianity’s role in Indigenous dispossession, the legacy of supersessionism in colonial ways of seeing and the disconnection of people from place which led to a particular kind of racial imagination. He also argues that Christianity contains the propensity for “joining” which is based upon connection, belonging and reciprocity. This form of joining was diminished as Europeans forcibly entered into the lands of others and reshaped the land and the Indigenous peoples in their own image. According to Jennings, recovery of the significance of place is an important step for creating communion between peoples that is just and equitable.

Several Indigenous theologians are also included in the dialogue in order to further examine the themes emerging from the films from a theological perspective. Reading Jennings in an Australian context in conversation with Indigenous theologians and the work of de Heer and Gulpilil provides new opportunities for the application of Jennings’ work. At the same time reading Jennings in this context raises questions relating to his theology concerning biblical Israel’s land, the place of biblical Israel in Christian self-understanding, and the importance of culture for Indigenous theologians.

The dialogue between Jennings’ theology, Indigenous theology and the cinematic works of de Heer and Gulpilil provides compelling insights into the legacy of Christianity’s role in colonialism. Together they also provide new ways of imagining relationality between peoples, and between people and the rest of creation.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Charles Sturt University
  • Foulcher, Jane, Principal Supervisor
  • Meyer, Ockert, Co-Supervisor
Place of PublicationCanberra
Publication statusPublished - 2020


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