Green lightBastardy captures the beggared and destitute recent years in the life of prolific Indigenous actor Jack Charles, who is credited with founding the first Aboriginal theatre company in the early 70s and collaborating over the decades with a long list of Australians actors and filmmakers. Though he’s worked predominantly in theatre, Charles’s films include significant releases such as Blackfellas (1993) and Fred Schepisi’s The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978).

The lives of established Aboriginal actors – even those who hit upon relative success – are not characterised by cheerful rags-to-riches narratives. As Germaine Greer observed last year in The Age, well-known local actor David Gulpilil was paid $10,000 to star in Crocodile Dundee, which went on to become one of the most financially successful Australian films ever made. Gulpilil, now approaching his 60s, currently lives in a tin shack in a Northern Territory village and has long struggled with alcoholism, depression and stints in jail. Robert Tudawali, who starred in the 1955 film Jedda, died after being badly burned in a campfire under suspicious circumstances.

Charles’s story is no more inspiring. Bastardy plays like a fall-from-grace documentary, even if ‘grace’ in this case is sadly relative – meaning perhaps that in his heyday Charles received a steady income. If he ever had wealth, Charles clearly squandered it: Bastardy begins with footage of him (now in his 60s) sleeping outside on a cardboard box below a flight of stairs. A moment later Charles shoots up in front of the camera with a grubby homemade bong on the desk behind him; he describes heroin as “what a fella lives for.” As the needle slides out his outward appearance doesn’t alter one iota, a skill he attributes to decades of addiction. Director Amiel Courtin-Wilson (Chasing Buddha) follows Charles for the next seven years, during which he receives his first flat via government housing, spends a year in the nick and gives up the needle.

It’s a sad and pitiable story but there is something pleasantly candid about the eloquence of Charles’s words and the manner with which he invites the audience into his life – his personality brazen and upfront in many ways, cloaked and secretive in others. Charles is a natural performer, effortlessly charismatic in a rough-hewn, earthy way, a man born to be in front of a camera or on a stage or commanding a crowd on the street. It’s inspiring that Charles’s instinctual charisma overcomes all his woes and obstacles: homelessness, financial destitution, drug addiction, jail time, and so on. “When you’re pushed out on stage, that’s when you’re born,” he says, and god damn it, you believe him. Courtin-Wilson laps up Charles’s extraverted personality and creates a layered portrait of his character.

Bastardy is a highly competent and deeply memorable documentary speckled with moments that remind the audience they’re watching something special, such as Charles’s sojourn to Kew (an affluent suburb in eastern Melbourne) which is funny and arresting in its frankness: he takes the director to different houses he has burglarised over the years, adding little anecdotes, like the time he found $20,000 in a cutlery draw. There is one terrific sequence in which Courtin-Wilson confronts Charles with knowledge of a recent burglary and delivers an ultimatum: return the jewellery and the cops don’t have to know. It’s an uncomfortable moment, the director discarding any notion of distanced or subjective analysis. Not quite exploitation but getting there, it’s a real fly on the wall scene – though given the conspicuous presence of the camera the audience feel hopelessly exposed, more like an elephant in the room. It reminded me of a heart wrenching moment in Grizzly Man, Werner Herzog’s documentary about bear activist Timothy Treadwell. In the scene Herzog plays an audio recording of Treadwell’s death to a distressed family member, instructing her to burn the tape and never listen to it again.

Wow factor moments like these can give non-classical documentaries real oomph. With an interesting subject even the most inexperienced filmmakers can intuitively unravel something compelling provided the golden rule remains in place – the camera stays on – and then it’s a matter of editing, editing and editing. This was recently evidenced in the 2007 documentary Richard – The Most Interesting Person I’ve Ever Met, a naïve but nevertheless compelling 50 minute doco directed by a 17-year-old student for a high school assignment. It is now available on DVD and should provide endless inspiration to aspiring documentary filmmakers: the lesson being that if the subject is strong enough the audience will look past elements they might find stifling in a fictional feature – like amateur photography and poor lighting.

That’s not to imply Bastardy has either. It’s a nicely made documentary, obviously massaged in the editing room for many months, but, rightfully, it’s the film’s subject the audience will take home and remember.

Bastardy opens June 25 in selected cinemas across the country for a limited two week season.