David Gulpilil


David Gulpilil Ridjimiraril Dalaithngu (born 1 July 1953) is a Yolngu man of the Mandhalpuyngu language group. In 1969, David’s extraordinary skill as a tribal dancer caught the attention of British filmmaker Nicolas Roeg, who had come to Maningrida scouting locations for a forthcoming film. Nicolas promptly cast the sixteen year old unknown to play a principal role in his internationally acclaimed motion picture Walkabout, released in 1971. David’s on-screen charisma, combined with his exceptional acting and dancing skills, was such that he became an instant national and international celebrity.

As a young boy, David was an accomplished hunter, tracker and ceremonial dancer. Unlike many Indigenous people of his generation, David spent his childhood in the bush, outside the range of non-Aboriginal influences. There he received a traditional upbringing in the care of his family. He attended the mission school at Maningrida in Australia’s North East Arnhem Land. When he came of age, David was initiated into the Mandhalpuyngu tribal group. His skin group totemic animal is the eagle and his homeland is Marwuyu. After appearing in his first film, he added English to several tribal languages in which he was already fluent.

After his high profile performance in Walkabout, David went on to appear in many more films and television productions including Storm Boy (1976) and The Last Wave (1977). But David is also one of the most renowned traditional dancers in Australia. He has organised troupes of dancers and musicians for various festivals including the prestigious Darwin Australia Day Eisteddfod dance competition which he won four times.

In addition to his career in dance, music, film and television, David is also an acclaimed storyteller. He has written the text for two volumes of children’s stories based on Yolngu beliefs. These books feature photographs and drawings by Australian artists and convey David’s reverence for the landscape, people and traditional culture of his homeland.

At a conference in Adelaide in the summer of 2000, David performed traditional dances and shared his recovery story with hundreds of indigenous young people. He has continued to provide much-needed mentorship to them, while lending his support to social and political causes such as the pursuit of tribal land claims for indigenous people. He joins other Australian artists in calling for government recognition of, and compensation for, the suffering of the “Stolen Generation” – children of mixed European and Aboriginal parentage who were forcibly removed from their indigenous families and placed in mission schools or with white adoptive parents far from their kin and homelands.

A documentary about his life, Gulpilil: One Red Blood, was aired on ABD in 2003. The title comes from a quote by David: “We are all one blood. No matter where we are from, we are all one blood, the same”.

David has been a major creative influence throughout his life in both dance and film. He initiated and narrated his recent film, Ten Canoes which won a Special Jury Prize at the 2006 Cannes Festival. The prize-winning, low-budget film, based on a 1,000-year-old traditional story of misplaced love and revenge, features non-professional indigenous actors speaking their local language. David collaborated with the director Rolf de Heer, urging him to make the film, and although he ultimately withdrew from a central role in the project, he provided the voice of the storyteller for the film. His most recent work as an actor was his major role in Baz Luhrmann’s Australia (2008).

David Gulpilil has now returned to his country to live as a respected Elder.