House debates

Tuesday, 30 November 2021


Dalaithngu, Mr David, AM

3:11 pm

Photo of Scott MorrisonScott Morrison (Cook, Liberal Party, Prime Minister) Share this | | Hansard source

As discussed with the Leader of the Opposition prior to question time, on indulgence and very briefly I wish to pay tribute to a formidable force in Australian cinema and Australian cultural life, and that is David Dalaithngu AM. He was a gift from our country, a gift to our country, who, through dance, song, art and the stage, allowed our country to see a better self. He was a mirror to the soul of Australia. On stage, television and the big screen, David shone and reflected something massive back to us: the 60,000-year history of Indigenous people in this country. We all knew him. Many in this House would have seen him for the first time, I suspect, when they were young children, as Fingerbone Bill in Storm Boy, Moodoo in Rabbit Proof Fence, Neville Bell in Crocodile Dundeeshowing another side to his great talents—King George in Australia or the tracker in Rolf de Heer's film of the same name.

David was of the Mandhalpuyngu clan of the Yolngu people. He was grounded in the rich traditions of those people. Schooled in multiple languages and living in a community that kept performance cultures alive, he understood story and meaning. He carried himself with elegance, grace, dignity and beauty. According to historian Dr Amanda Harris, who has written extensively about the history of Aboriginal music and dance, he had a strong desire to tell his own story, the story of his culture, the story of Australia. She said: 'He saw the arts—dance, music, opera, acting—as acts of diplomacy and dialogue, acts that could bridge divides and let us see each other as we truly are.'

There was always something bigger about his work, and that was reflected on stage and screen. It is often said that David lived in two worlds. It wasn't easy for him to bridge this gap between his two worlds. But one thing brought those ties together, and that is that he was a storyteller. He allowed Australians to see something richer. In lauding him, we should not rob him of his joy, his cheekiness and the ease with which he carried himself. On occasion he'd begin an acceptance speech with the words 'I deserve this'—and he did. The director Peter Weir recalled when they first met. He said:

As I was leaving and got in my old car, you leaned in through the window and said to me, 'I've told you very special things, Peter, just for you … And just remember, as you drive away, my shadow will be beside you in the car.' And I remember driving off and looking at the passenger seat.

On this day, we say to David that he deserves the accolades and we know his shadow is beside us. This country, its history, its joys and its travails were the essence of his being. To his family, his friends and his people we extend our deep sympathies for their loss and Australia's loss. May he rest in peace.

3:14 pm

Photo of Anthony AlbaneseAnthony Albanese (Grayndler, Australian Labor Party, Leader of the Opposition) Share this | | Hansard source

David Dalaithngu faced the end with the same grace with which he carried himself through so much of his life. Contemplating the final stretch, he said:

It's like, I'm walking across the desert of country, until the time comes, for me.

And now the time has come. Australia has lost a great actor, dancer, painter and writer, a proud Yolngu man, a great Australian, a rare human being, a titan. From the moment the 15-year-old David first graced the screen in Walkabout, it was clear that Australia was witnessing the emergence of more than just another fresh face. At a time when non-Indigenous actors were still being cast in Indigenous roles, here he was, bringing his own culture so vividly and mesmerisingly alive on the screen. More than just a film role, it was a turning point. As the great Jack Thompson put it:

I think it was the first time I'd seen the Aboriginal culture presented on-screen as not only interesting, but dynamically attractive.

The script was slender, just 14 pages in total, but director Nicolas Roeg was a visionary. And, above all, he had David. In the words of Shane Danielsen in The Monthly earlier this year, he was:

… the kind of secret weapon a filmmaker dreams of: a figure of coiled energy and casual, effortless grace. Someone who commands the screen simply by the act of allowing themselves to be photographed.

That his performance was no fluke of beginner's luck was made clear just a few years later when he became Fingerbone Bill in that great movie, Storm Boy. As his filmography grew, so he grew as a remarkable and powerful presence in our cultural life. David himself was succinct about his own talents, telling an interviewer:

I don't pretend. I don't have to go and act, I just jump in and stand there and the camera sees me.

He knew the bright lights of Hollywood, but he never stopped holding onto the glow of his own country. Arnhem Land was always waiting for him, and it rarely waited in vain. He held onto his roots because, ultimately, they are what nourished him. As for his role as a Yolgnu ambassador out in the world, he put it this way: 'Everything right, for my culture. I made it true.' The road wasn't always smooth for David—that was something he never shied away from—but he walked tall in two worlds with grace, truth and humour. Now he walks in another place.