Australia / 2008 / English

Directed by Amiel Courtin-Wilson

Still From 'Bastardy'We first encounter Jack Charles while he’s sleeping in an alleyway, a flattened cardboard box serving as his bedding. In the daylight he pads through the city like a very small ghost, a frizzled starburst of gray hair and beard exaggerating his appearance. Through clips and photos, though, we learn about who this man once was: a pioneering aboriginal actor, who has appeared in movies and on television, and who, decades ago, started Australia’s first black theater group. He now lives on the streets of Melbourne, sleeping where it’s amenable and buying drugs with whatever money he can forage. But beneath the layers of dereliction, a firecracker of a human being still resides, magnetic and irrepressible, and the subject of Bastardy.

When he feels inspired, he is Jack Charles the busker, playing his unique renditions of African-American blues songs to entertain other street people. He rides the bus with his guitar, probably not making much money off of it, but getting his fix of performance since the film roles have dried up. It’s not clear if he’s worked less because of his spiral into drugs and homelessness, or if those problems are a result of the lack of work. His star power has darkened significantly since the 1970s, when a brief awakening in Australian cinema suddenly brought lots of aboriginal characters to it, and actors like Tommy Lewis and David Gulpilil rose to prominence. However even these mainstream portrayals are quite troubling, often stereotyping aborigines as dangerous and unknowable. Now nearing 60, Charles can’t even land television work playing a tribal elder, which he essentially is, albeit an alienated one.

He takes us on a tour of the places, past and present, which he has frequented: a laundry room where he used to sleep, a friend’s apartment where he can shoot up in privacy, and, surprisingly, a posh suburban neighborhood where the estates have names taken from Tuscany or Wiltshire. Enter Jack Charles the cat burglar. As though he were on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous or Cribs, he shows director Courtin-Wilson around the yards of his upper-class haunts, as well as the methods he likes to employ, and how he evades the police. He’s quite proud of how much he’s been able to take over the years. “I am patrolling my land,” he tells the filmmaker as they drive through Kew, one of the upscale suburbs that he hits now and again.

“When I first started robbing people… I justified myself as a hunter-gatherer, going on to prime aboriginal land, you know, on the other side of the era.” This is payback, a very light payback, for the historical theft and massacres, for the continuing discrimination and neglect suffered by aborigines throughout the continent. “At least I haven’t… raped them in their sleep and killed their children and all that kind of stuff,” he says, at his melodious uncle’s pitch, suggesting that those things would be more than just, given what aborigines have had to endure over the last few centuries. But, in spite of having internalized a lot of violence, he seems a gentle person, unwilling to redirect what has been done to him, and instead shying away when interactions might go bad. “When there was any possibility of confrontation, I’d be off like a light.” Thus cat burgling is his side hustle, as opposed to mugging or extortion.

Still From 'Bastardy'His outlet for violence against society is rather quiet, his methods for getting even consisting of enriching himself rather than significantly undermining others, no matter how much they might have it coming. After all, if you can’t beat ’em, steal from ’em. We in the comfortable West must never forget that what we have is largely grown from the oppression of others. Barbarism isn’t relegated to our past, but continues to shape some groups’ success and others’ debasement. Charles is a walking product of that inequity, although he doesn’t proclaim it loudly or very frequently. He doesn’t need to. He sums up his life and career by saying, “I’ve reminded them of who they are, and who we are.” To him, all the hardship has been worth it, to be a creative aborigine with a voice and stories to tell, and who has prodded society awake at different intervals, in various ways.

In spite of having been homeless for so long, he’s neither caustic nor reticent, nor mistrustful. He’s an entertaining and charismatic personality, whose pleasantly rustic vocabulary seems noticeably slowed and scattered by the effects of drugs and having lived outdoors for so long. “I suppose… it’s what a fella lives for,” he says, of heroin, while readying one of the root-like veins in his skinny arm for an injection. It’s a sad thought, but quite reasonable at this point. There’s an obvious wit, furious intellect and originality to the man, all of which have been dulled by drugs and poverty, sometimes worn down to only the faintest – but unmistakable – glimmer. Opiates open up certain sluices in the mind, which are then left open well past usefulness, the continuous backwash of gray water becoming polluted and degraded. Unlike the stimulants that result in furious activity, heroin seems to exist only for satisfying its own need. The numbing pleasure and the quiet elation of it, according to him, are preferable to alcohol. It’s an informed choice, actually, and far less destructive than other addictions that ravage aboriginal communities. He’s only a harm to himself, he attests. And he only robs from the rich – pound for pound, a very low-impact criminal.

Seemingly wherever he goes, and in whatever capacity, people adore and admire him. But in spite of making so many friends, why has he had so much trouble keeping his life in order? Why periodically subject himself to such loneliness, and why betray their trust? The answers are given by his history rather than by his words, in his complicated and lifelong relationship with mainstream society. He hates it but also can’t live without it; it robbed him of background and foundation, expelling him onto the streets as a permanent nomad. Thus things like love, friendship and support have been elusive, and he’s done a rather good job of pursuing them in spite of his circumstances.

Bastardy15“I always wondered what would have happened if…” and he trails off, before dozing a bit, then apologizing for losing his train of thought. But we know what he meant. Even in a slippery drug-stupor he is expressive. The truth of the matter is that he would have had a hard go of it no matter what. The skids that he hit after his career stalled are only one factor in his difficult life. As a black actor, he would always be typecast in roles that he perhaps felt only semi-comfortable doing. In terms of theater, he had a lot of creative agency and success, including doing one-man shows and having plays that he wrote put on by others. But this situation couldn’t fully sustain the man, and only a year after his most famous film role (in 1978’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith) he was jailed for burglary.

Thus began something like 22 years spent in and out of prison. He talks about it as a relief from a precarious existence outside, from the daily cycle of stealing and spending that money on drugs. (At one point in the film he reports getting briefly kidnapped and roughed up by some criminals to whom he owed some money). And, although prison is a harsh and often violent place too, he managed to flourish there, taking up wheel throwing and running the inmates’ pottery workshop. Not only did the meditative rotating of the clay help him survive on the inside, but he was granted a means through which to teach and inspire others during his sentence.

Charles’ plummy way of talking seems a reflexive shield over inner sadness and desolation, one that nonetheless expresses them all the time, like an umbrella of clear plastic. That he is often narrating rather painful events gives a feeling of discordance, an added layer of discomfort to his mumbly patter. Prison is always “the nick” or “the clinker”‘; breaking-and-entering is “doing a burg”. He speaks foster child’s slang, ornamenting a harsh reality with folksy chestnuts. “In like Flynn,” he quips, as he walks us through the process of injecting heroin. Later on, after he has scored a small role in a film, his elation comes through in his tone and mannerisms. “I’ve hit the boards again,” he beams. Being able to act, a rare treat for him in the period that Courtin-Wilson followed him, seems go give Charles the satisfaction to keep trying at life. “When you’re pushed out on stage, that’s when you’re born,” he tells us.

Things seem to start turning around for Charles when his request for a single-occupancy unit is granted by the government. “I am no longer the oldest street kid on the block,” he smiles as he shows us the place. It is ant-infested and already quite cluttered, but it’s a home, it’s something stable. No longer a buoyant fixture of the streets, he’s cut off the gigantic white mane that surrounded his face in a bid for respectability. Clean-shaven and rather smaller-looking, he has ascended to urban anonymity. But this normalcy appears short-lived. Pretty soon the police are knocking on his door again, and Charles is faced with the possibility of going inside once again.

Courtin-Wilson has received a call from one of their mutual friends, reporting that Charles has burglarized her home. The old man doesn’t contest the fact that his other addiction has struck again. (Although, as he claims, he doesn’t usually steal from people he knows personally). The woman passes on a request that he return the ring that he took from the house, while the electronics he stole don’t matter. So he goes back and locates the person to whom he sold the ring, and retrieves it. One thing that makes him interesting is this integrity that doesn’t seem to bend or fade at all. He doesn’t fancy himself a con-man, and doesn’t find any gain in lying to anyone, neither to his friends nor to the police, nor to himself. He says at the beginning that Courtin-Wilson should record him in the act of shooting heroin, because otherwise it wouldn’t be an honest film.

Still From 'Bastardy'Even though he’s quite clearly a born performer – something that comes through in all of his mannerisms and turns of phrase – there’s a singularity about Jack Charles, an unshakeable reality (albeit peculiar to him alone) that hasn’t been compromised by addiction, abuse or hard times. It comes from having been removed from all of the things that people generally give themselves over to: society, family, work, etc. We rely on these things to uphold our existence and consequently base our beliefs in them. Deprived of them, or perhaps free of them, he has always relied on himself, and thus contains all of his own reality, carries it with him. In fits and starts he found a sort of society in the theater, but like with the culture around him, would only maintain a temperamental connection to it.

At several points, Charles alludes to his very difficult childhood (“upbringing” wouldn’t be the right word) in institutions and foster care. He was essentially manufactured by the state, as part of its forced assimilation campaign of the mid-20th Century, which removed so-called “half-caste” aboriginal children from their communities to be brought up as white. The process was extremely traumatic, and many members of the “stolen generations” couldn’t find where they came from upon being released into the world, instead drifting – as Charles has done – through the margins of white society. He speaks of sexual abuse while growing up and cultural disconnect, as well as having considered suicide. And his experience is not unusual, but rather the norm. At one point in the film we meet his brother, a homeless panhandler who was permanently traumatized by abuse and police beatings. Charles recounts how the two had been in the same institution together as children, but didn’t find out that they were related until they were about to be separated again.

Charles also opens up to Courtin-Wilson about someone he describes as the only person he ever loved, a man also named Jack, whom he knew decades ago as a young actor. It sounds like a time when Charles felt somehow complete, and loved in return. He says that they never consummated their relationship because, like many victims of abuse, Charles associated sex with pain and coercion, and thus couldn’t bring himself to do it. And, as his childhood was characterized by brutality rather than love, he found himself becoming abusive, and the boyfriend ended up walking out on him. It’s a heartbreaking recollection, and Charles still walks around holding onto the memory of Jack. Even though it was a great loss for him, and it was never entirely a comfortable relationship, simply having loved someone once preserves a bit of warmth in him even through cold times.

Courtin-Wilson’s choices of soundtrack speak of a wider spectrum of sadness and heartbreak than using only blues tunes. There’s a fair amount of bed music coming from Wire magazine regulars of the mid-to-late-oughts, including Oren Ambarchi, Warren Ellis, John Cale and Jackie-O Motherfucker, as well as a theme song from CocoRosie. While it all comes from diverse artists and eras, the differences don’t register. The bourgeois preciousness of a lot of it seems as though it would undermine a documentary about harsh reality (see, for a sometimes cringey example, Michael Glawogger’s 2011 film Whores’ Glory). But the ironic, cutesy indecency of it rarely overwhelms the tone or character of the film, and actually meshes well enough with the mixture of joviality and sadness, criminality and kindness that Charles radiates much of the time.

Still From 'Bastardy'There is just enough combining of beautiful, grainy shots with the more drab and direct video footage. Clearly there’s a mixing of different periods, as Courtin-Wilson returned to Charles periodically over a span of time. There are also enough touches of artsy reenactment (like Charles being walked into a prison cell) to make the entirety feel cinematic, but not to diminish the bracing immediacy of the rest of it. One seemingly unconnected motif that the director returns to is the gauzy image of a child making his way up through the canopy of a tree, leafy sunlight blurring the frame. Perhaps it’s Charles as a little boy, savoring a moment of freedom away from a terrible existence down on the ground. The camera flips through the many mugshots he has gathered over the years, which all show the most penetrating look of defiance that we ever see from the man.

The film chronicles a very low, seven-year period in Charles’ tumultuous life, and he evidently decided to mend his ways after watching it. Even within the time frame that it covers he has begun to transition back from being merely a cautionary figure to an inspirational one, once again. This is heartening – the viewer finds themselves rooting for Charles, no matter how much we want to see him as a lovable rascal. He isn’t a wasted life, and he has persevered through a long campaign of destruction, wrought both from without and from within. He still has the power to subvert society’s norms and its history of repression, and can do so better without being in self-imposed exile from it. While, on the one hand, the sight of a man who has gone clean, has shaven and settled into a small compartment signals a diminishing of his proud radiance, it is also one branch climbed toward the sunlight, toward the fruit of life. Jack Charles is up, and he is fighting.

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