Bastardy was filmed over six years, two of which Jack Charles spent in prison. (Publicity still: Supplied)
In one of the first scenes of 2008 documentary Bastardy, Jack Charles shoots up heroin, declaring it is what he “lives for”.
Speaking ahead of tonight’s re-screening at the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF), the acclaimed actor and member of the Stolen Generations said neither he nor director Amiel Courtin-Wilson knew then how the film would end.
“We never knew whether I’d survive,” Charles said matter-of-factly.
Courtin-Wilson followed Charles for six years “existing on the streets of Collingwood and Fitzroy, a struggling homeless, addicted, well-known cat burglar”.
“I do remember having to con $50 out of him so I could get a whack.”
Bastardy could have been the story of a human tragedy, but when Charles quit heroin it became a story “with a wonderful happy ending” that resulted in an “outpouring of love” for Charles, Courtin-Wilson said.
The man the people of Melbourne now know as Uncle Jack was humbled by the experience.
“People contacted me, on the street, tripping over themselves on the street to engage with me, speaking to me on public transport, writing me little notes saying that they saw Bastardy.”
Charles said the documentary became “a useful tool” for him to reinvigorate his acting career.
“People in the industry … realised that I was performing nowadays, from the time of Bastardy, with no poo in my system.
“It was the documentary that actually saved my life, and I’ve often embarrassed the poor bugger Amiel by saying he was my saviour.”
Director’s unorthodox working methods
Much has changed for Amiel Courtin-Wilson in the nine years since Bastardy’s release. (ABC Radio Melbourne: Simon Leo Brown)
When Bastardy premiered at MIFF, Courtin-Wilson was living in a caravan in the corner of a rented Melbourne warehouse.
In 2013 he decided to concentrate on making films overseas and has since found it “easier to just not have a house at all”.
“I’ve pretty much been a homeless nomad for the last nigh on four years,” he said.
Courtin-Wilson followed Bastardy with the short film Cicada, which was selected for the Cannes Film Festival.
That, he said, made it easier to finance his feature film projects despite his unorthodox working methods.
His work since include experimental feature films Hail (2011) and Ruin (2013) and a documentary on Australian pop star Ben Lee.
“[I am] really trying to push myself formally, personally, philosophically into a space that feels really unsafe and unknown and see what happens.”
Courtin-Wilson’s latest film The Silent Eye, also screening this year at MIFF, documents a collaboration between 72-year-old Japanese butoh dancer Min Tanaka and 88-year-old free jazz pianist Cecil Taylor.
Shot entirely in Taylor’s music room, the film alternates between the pair’s improvised performance and slow-motion vignettes featuring extreme close-ups and dancing shadows.
Courtin-Wilson said the film was “a love letter to Cecil”, who the director lived with as his carer for a year-and-a-half.
He is now working on a larger film on Taylor which he described as “a free jazz time travel biopic”.
“That film is probably a good year or two off, so I just wanted to make something about Cecil and one of his collaborators that could be very confined and shot very quickly, but also that I could show to Cecil as a gift of sorts.”
These days Charles describes himself as a “self-proclaimed Cleverman”, and is Facebook friends with one of the police officers who used to pursue him for burglary.
His play, Jack Charles Vs The Crown, documented his struggle to return to prisons as a mentor for Aboriginal inmates, a struggle which is just now bearing fruit through his work with the Archie Roach Foundation.
“It’s only come to light in the last year that I’ve been allowed to sneak in under the radar on the goodwill of the governors of prisons, management, staff and crims,” he said.
“We want to make a play to have a permanent presence of paid elders to go into our institutions … to re-light the burning embers of many a blackfella’s Dreaming — drugged-up, grogged-up, locked-up, mucked-up dreamings.”
So now that he is free from heroin, what does Charles live for?
“I live to be the keeper of culture and law, and to return to prisons.”
ABC Radio Melbourne is a media partner of the Melbourne International Film Festival, which runs until August 20.