A character portrait that stretches over 8 years is by it’s very nature quite epic in scope, yet the emotional depths that Bastardy touches upon are of a level rarely witnessed in your standard ‘follow-a-junky’ doc. An orphaned child of the ‘stolen generation,’ forcefully extracted from aboriginal communities in Australia, Jack Charles struggled to find his place in the world. A founding member of the first Aboriginal Theatre company in the seventies, Jack found a home of sorts in the embodiment of others, performing as an actor on both stage and screen and gaining certain recognition for his work.
But our introduction to Jack comes in the contemporary world, where the now old man has dipped into a half-way house to cook up his hit for the day. His expletive peppered words insist that the filmmaker shows his life up front, and that the audience sees his personal focus on the needle right from the get go. It’s his cross to bear, and the doc thankfully eschews any attempts to justify his need, or even coerce him to go straight.
The film initially stumbles around with the subject, as he looks for audiences to play guitar to, or later searching for quiet corners to bed down in. There is no grand introduction, and Jack’s past only becomes clear throughout the course of the film, at the same pace it became clear to the filmmaker following him. His cat burgling past is introduced as a chance drive around the affluent parts of Melbourne sees Jack pointing out the dozens of houses he’s burgled. ‘I never break in. I just walk in wherever’s open’ he says almost glibly ‘if there’s any confrontation, I’m out like a light.’
The subject’s charm and quick-when-not-high wit does a lot to hold the momentum of the film. His appearance varies wildly throughout the film, and intercut photos and clips from his past reinforce the mercurial nature of the man. A blur of outward identity which contrasts a resolute, but tired, voice of experience. The swathes of friends he has found and lost are only hinted at in a short montage of endless hugs, yet the focus remains on the addiction fuelled kleptomania which awkwardly gets in the way of these friendships. His eventual reflection on the one love he found in life cuts through the film in a heartrending way, evincing quite how far the film has drawn the viewer into the film.
A vivid sequence at the end of the film shows Jack going backwards through time in a series of police mug shots, from capture in 2003, with a photo for almost every other year right back to 1961 when Jack was caught on his first charge at the tender age of 18. His hair and beard balloon in and out over time, each cut heralding the nigh endless cycle of addiction, theft, capture, release, addiction, theft, capture, release, addiction…
Seeing him cheerily Q&A the film after the screening I saw felt like seeing a man stand naked before the audience. One particularly uncharitable commentator in Australia felt obliged to post a reflection on the internet that “Regardless of the artistic representation, the man is a criminal.” Art does of course not excuse the man, but you’d need a heart of granite to conclude such from portrait as pointed and revealing as this.
A brief note for an incredibly brief documentary. A student project where director Scott Dawe tracks down members of his extended family to discuss his grandfather’s home movies. A mysterious woman appears in one, and the grand patriarch’s infidelity and fledgling commitment to his family are quick laid bare. Emotional interviews intercut with almost ghost-like super8 footage make for punchy if somewhat clipped film.