In 2002, Philip Noyce's Rabbit-Proof Fence attacked the Australian government's policy of forcibly removing mixed race Aborigines from their families, sending them to government camps to be sold as servants, converted to Christianity, and eventually assimilated into white society. Just released on DVD and set six years earlier in 1922, Australian indie director Rolf de Heer's The Tracker is a parable that also explores racism in Australia but on an even darker level, reflecting, according to de Heer, the practices and attitudes of that era towards the Aboriginal people. As three white men and an Aboriginal tracker set out on horseback to search for a black fugitive (Noel Wilton) accused of killing a white woman, the search through the stunning landscape of the Flinders Ranges becomes an exercise in savagery that raises questions about genocide.
The travelers in the search party are nameless and referred to only as The Fanatic (Gary Sweet), The Follower (Damon Gameau), and The Veteran (stuntman Grant Page). They are characters who are both individuals and archetypes who seem to represent racial discrimination and its passive acceptance. The Fanatic is the pompous police officer who is shown as repulsively intolerant of blacks and an individual that will not hesitate to kill. The Follower is his young and innocent assistant who is startled by The Fanatic's relentless racism yet too inexperienced to make a move. The Veteran is an old timer who will not challenge authority .
In The Tracker , De Heer employs two effective and original touches. One is the use of ten original songs composed by Graham Tardif, with lyrics by de Heer, and performed by Archie Roach, an Aboriginal singer who sounds like Tom Waits. Like the Neil Young score in Jim Jarmusch's subversive Western, Dead Man , the continual music can be intrusive but it creates a mood of solemnity. In another device, de Heer cuts away from scenes of violence to show still shots of Peter Coad paintings done in a simple primitive style. The raw emotion of Roach's songs and Coad's expressive artwork establish a record of the horror and allow us to relate to the mythic quality of the drama.
The Tracker plays the part of a fool saying to the officer "Yes, Boss. Okay Boss" yet, like Feste in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night , he is a knowing fool, a man of humor and irony and an instinctive intelligence about the natural world, its spirits and its sacred places. When The Fanatic tells him to show The Follower the signs he is following, he points to one stone in a field of thousands saying, “ Dis stone in the wrong place, belong over here”, underneath almost dry, he gone couple of hours." revealing knowledge of the place of every stone. We know that The Tracker, though outwardly subservient, is the one who is really in charge and that the search party would be lost without him. As The Fanatic forces The Follower and The Veteran to participate in murder, the groundwork is laid for revenge and retribution.
The Tracker is a beautiful and powerful film that bears witness to the time when there was no talk of Aboriginal reconciliation and no hope for it. Damon Gameau shows great promise as the young man who has developed that rare quality called conscience and we identify with his strength of character. The highlight performance of the film, however, is that of charismatic native actor David Gulpilul. He portrays a man of simple dignity, not a "noble savage" or a faithful "Jacky Jacky figure" necessary to white dominance of the frontier but simply a man who has a profound sense of the world around him. Through him de Heer allows us to glimpse the possibility of establishing a true multi-racial society where people respect each other as equals.
©2005 Howard Schumann