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Who is David Gulpilil?

 Early Life -- When, as a young boy, David Gulpilil first arrived at the mission school at Maningrida in Australia's North East Arnhem Land, he was already an accomplished hunter, tracker and ceremonial dancer. Unlike many indigenous people of his generation, Gulpilil spent his childhood in the bush, outside the range of Anglo-Australian influences. There, he received a traditional upbringing in the care of his family. When he came of age, Gulpilil was initiated into the Mandipingu tribal group  (Yolngu culture.) His 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.

First Film -- Gulpilil's extraordinary skill as a tribal dancer caught the attention of British filmmaker Nicholas Roeg, who had come to Maningrida scouting locations for a forthcoming film. Roeg promptly cast the fifteen year old unknown to play a principal role in his internationally acclaimed motion picture Walkabout, which first screened in 1970. Gulpilil's on-screen charisma was such that he became an instant celebrity. He traveled to distant lands, mingled with famous people and was presented to heads of state. 

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Life in the Arts -- After his high profile performance in Walkabout, Gulpilil went on to appear in many more films and television productions. Perhaps the most renowned traditional dancer in his country, he has organized troupes of dancers and musicians and has performed at festivals throughout Australia 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, Gulpilil is also an acclaimed storyteller. He has written the text for two volumes of children's stories based on Yolngu beliefs. These books also feature photographs and drawings by Australian artists and convey Gulpilil's reverence for the landscape, people and traditional culture of his homeland. Gulpilil's latest artistic triumph is his appearance in an autobiographical stage production in March of 2004 at the Adelaide Festival of Arts 2004.

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Struggles Between two Worlds -- During his career, Gulpilil has often encountered  racism and discrimination at the hands of some of the agencies and individuals that have employed him. His talent as a dancer and film actor has proved lucrative to others, yet he himself has often failed to receive financial compensation equal to that of other featured players. For instance, he played a substantial speaking (and dancing) role in Crocodile Dundee but he was only paid $10,000 total for his work. This film went on to earn millions in worldwide distribution and is still bringing in cash for its producers. (A correspondent to this site commented that the American actor Brad Pitt was only paid $6,000 for his appearance in Thelma and Louise. However, to put the wages in perspective, Brad Pitt was not already a seasoned film actor with an international reputation, as was Gulpilil when Crocodile Dundee was produced.)

Gulpilil has struggled personally with alcoholism and depression, as have many other indigenous artists who departed from their traditional lifestyles to become public figures. After suffering a period of incarceration for substance abuse-related offenses (many journalists and others believe he would have been offered rehabilitation instead of jail time, had he not been a person of color,) Gulpilil returned to his family and friends at Ramingining in the Northern Territory and reconnected with his spiritual roots. 

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Gulpilil Today -- Now, in recovery, David Gulpilil has rededicated himself to the service of his own indigenous community with particular focus on the problems of Aboriginal youth. At a conference in Adelaide in the summer of 2000, Gulpilil performed traditional dances and shared his recovery story with hundreds of indigenous young people. He continues 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 so-called "Stolen Generations" -- 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. Today Gulpilil lives and works in Ramingining as a respected tribal elder.

It is an honor to celebrate Mr. Gulpilil's achievements and share news of his ongoing career with his fans around the world.

Mischa B. Adams --

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