David Dalaithngu, the Yolngu Actor that Transformed Australian Film

WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are warned that the following article contains images of a deceased person.

David Dalaithngu in his documentary ‘My Name is Gulpilil. Courtesy of Iview, 2021.

Today, we would like to pay our respects to Yolngu man David Dalaithngu, a world-renowned actor, cultural icon and captivating dancer who helped shape the Australian film industry and paved the way for First Nations representation on screen. With an acting career spanning 50 years, David Dalaithngu featured in an incredible array of iconic Australian films and documentaries. Over the course of his career, he brought realism and depth to his roles, casting aside the existing derogatory and degrading representations of his people and replacing it with accurate and empowering portrayals of First Nations identities (The Guardian, 2021).

Walkabout (1971). Courtesy of IMDb, 2021.

The elders of Dalaithngu’s communities in Arnhem Land were no strangers to film-making due to the abundance of Australian anthropologists, by the likes of Donald Thompson, Charles P. Mountford and Walter Baldwin Spencer, producing documentaries about their lifestyles and cultural practices since 1910. So, when 1969 came around, it was no surprise that when English film director Nicolas Roeg asked elders in Arnhem Land who their best young dancer would be for his upcoming film, they all pointed to Dalaithngu. Afterall, Dalaithngu grew up in Maningrida, Arnhem Land where he spent his entire childhood submerged in the customs and traditions of his people, becoming an accomplished tracker, hunter and ceremonial dancer by the age of 15. So, at the age of 16, the talented dancer featured in his first film, Walkabout (1971). In Dalaithngu’s role, he was made to present the stereotypical depiction of a ‘traditional’ Aboriginal person, ‘untouched’ by Western culture. This, combined with the derogatory audiovisual representations of his people in Arnhem Land, made David Dalaithngu determined to transform Australian feature films (The Guardian, 2021).

David Dalaithngu dancing in 'Storm Boy'. Courtesy of NFSA, 2021.

Dalaithngu’s arrival on the big screen is credited to transforming this negative representation within the Australian film industry. Up until the 1970s, non-Indigenous people were still playing the roles of Indigenous peoples. His influence is evident in his award-winning films Storm Boy (1976), The Last Wave (1977), Crocodile Dundee (1986), whereby he infused his own identity and cultural knowledge into the characters. Through these roles, he has enriched and dignified the representation of Aboriginality, gaining widespread acceptance and respect from the Australian film industry and public (NFSA, 2021).

Later in Dalaithngu’s career, he introduced audiences to traditional practices and Indigenous forms of interpersonal communication through his role in the film The Tracker (2002). This involved the use of sign and body language, such as subtle facial and eye expressions to convey specific meanings. Through this film and Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002), Dalaithngu informed the wider Australian audience that there isn’t only one way of understanding and viewing Aboriginal peoples and their cultural heritage (NFSA, 2021).

David Gulpilil in his award winning role as Charlie, in ‘Charlie's Country’. Courtesy of Entertainment One, 2021.

In 2017, David Dalaithngu was sadly diagnosed with lung cancer. Defying the odds, he created what became his last great work, My Name is Gulpilil. The documentary showed his life both past and present. He called it “my story of my story,” referring to the many layers of his life on and off screen (Flicks, 2021). In an article by the Guardian, writer Luke Buckmaster (2021) describes the depth of emotion conveyed through this documentary:

“[My Name is Gulpilil] plays out in the spirit of a living wake, celebrating its subject while contemplating the inevitable.”

This documentary was a beautiful last piece for Dalaithngu to leave the world with. A complete reflection of his life, his achievements, the highpoints and low points. My Name is Gulpilil, along with his many films have touched the hearts of audiences nationally and internationally, bringing realness to our screens and educating everyone about what it means to be Indigenous in modern Australia. Now we celebrate his life, his incredible contributions to Australian film, and how he has paved the way for future generations.

If you would like to learn about David Dalaithngu’s life in more depth, we highly recommend watching My Name Is Gulpilil. You can stream the full documentary via Iview.