July 2022

Jack Of All Trades

Words: Gabriel Knowles Images: Amiel Courtin-Wilson

“It’s double jeopardy when you’re black and you’re homosexual mate – and you’re a bloody thief and a thespian too.”

Jack Charles is a junkie, cat burglar and a regular behind bars. Funnily enough he’s also an Aboriginal elder and one of Australia’s most critically acclaimed actors who’s work with the likes of Bill Hunter, Geoffrey Rush, Neil Armfield, Bruce Spence and David Field left a lasting impression according to Amiel Courtin-Wilson, the director of Bastardy.

Amiel should know, he spent seven years filming Jack for the feature length documentary. “They hadn’t seem him in years and they were fucking amazed he was alive. As soon as they found out he was alive he started getting roles again. He’s got three films in the Sydney Film Festival this year! It’s been quite a renaissance for him.” It’s little wonder seeing as Jack’s career has also seen him found the first Aboriginal theatre company, Nindethana, and star in seminal films such as The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith.

Ameil’s own footage of is cut with footage of Jack in his heyday. “I could be anybody on stage,” Jack recounts. He isn’t bragging, he’s just right. It’s no meant feat to rise to the top of your game in just one field, let alone two, something Jack has kept up for over forty years.

“I think that the position of a criminal is the same as an artist as it’s outside a lot of social structures. If you choose to you’re privileged with a unique perspective because you’re transgressing and traversing different social groups. There’s a way that criminals see the world that’s quite heightened, there’s an immediacy that not to dissimilar to the way in which an artist can put a spin on an object.” Says Amiel.

In 2001 Amiel returned to Melbourne after premiering his first feature documentary, Chasing Buddha, at Sundance. Since childhood Amiel’s family had regaled him with stories of Jack’s outrageous exploits so he headed off to find the flowing white beard of the oldest homeless man in Fitzroy. Within minutes of their meeting Jack suggested Amiel start filming their meetings right then and there.

For the next eight months Jack gradually let Amiel in, showing him the places he lived and the well to do suburbs where he earned his money. “When I first started robbing people I put it under the classification of ’collecting the rent.” Jack admits at one point. “I justified myself as a hunter gatherer, going onto prime Aboriginal land.”

In return Amiel supported Jack’s habit and became the first phone call the wispy haired actor made when he got picked up for riding the bus on a schoolgirl’s pass. A broken parole saw him sent back to prison and Amiel reckons this is where the two men became real friends.

“That really accelerated things, suddenly I was driving out to Beechworth prison, liasing with his lawyers, getting him books and putting money in his account each week. Once he got out from that he realised I wasn’t just interested in him just because of the filming. It really cemented things between us.”

Despite the new found trust Jack fell straight back into his old ways as soon as he was released. “I tried to organise to pick him up that time but he got out early without telling meand he got back on the treadmill of using straight away and doing burgs the first night he got out. I don’t think I knew him well enough at that juncture to circumvent that cycle.” The award winning filmmaker confides.

For the next few years they continued filming together in between Amiel’s other projects and Jack’s now increasingly regular acting work. Jack continued to live in Amiel’s house off and on and eventually even the cops got wise that if they wanted to track down Jack all they had to do was call Amiel. “The intimacy finally culminated in becoming embroiled in Jack’s criminal activities to the point where I was unsure if what I was doing was legal anymore.” Amiel concedes.

It’s hard to say if it’s Amiel’s steadying influence or that Jack is simply wising up as the years go on as things start to turn his way. He gets his own place and things are looking up.

“It just became a real confession booth for him because my style of interview him was very gentle. For someone who hasn’t done therapy apart from in jail I suppose it was a strange kind of therapy for him in some sense.”

But then his old tricks catch up with him and there’s a very real chance he’ll spend his 60th birthday, just like his 20th, 30th, 40th and 50th, on the inside. His lawyer and Amiel do their best to convince Jack that whatever happens he has to finish the film. Amiel admits that Jack was suicidal during this period and that feeling their support is what got him through.

“That’s the thing with Jack, it always boils down to seemingly rudimentary but actually profound stuff.”

Bastardy – Showing for a limited 2 week season from June 25 at Palace Cinemas nationally.

For your chance to win a double pass to see Bastardy just email [email protected]

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