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  • TBC
  • 2006
  • 90 mins

Ten Canoes

Ten Canoes


Anthropology, adultery and egg-hunting combine to tell the story of a Northern Aboriginal tribe's culture and traditions


"Once upon a time in a land far far away...". Rolf De Heer's and Peter Djigirr's Ten Canoes begins like a classic fairytale or even Star Wars. But then, with an audible smirk, its playful narrator (Gulpilil) interrupts himself ("No, not like that, I'm only joking"), before going on to promise a story about himself and his people "like you never seen before".

He is not wrong. When Aborigines have previously appeared on film, they have been largely confined either to marginal bit-parts, or to dramas (including De Heer's own harrowing 2002 film The Tracker) with a narrow focus upon colonial oppression and black-white conflict.

Ten Canoes is without precedent in the Australian canon, as the first film to be set in pre-contact times, the first to have an all-native cast and the first to feature dialogue made up exclusively of Aboriginal languages. Here Aboriginal identity is neither defined by nor subordinated to Western culture, but shown in its own right as a repository of wisdom, myth and sly humour.

Like the river seen snaking through Arnhem Land's Ramingining region in the film's opening shots, the narrator's multi-faceted story winds and meanders, marking time even as it seems timeless. He starts with a brief account of both his land's origins in the dreamtime, and his own, more recent birth, before launching into a tale about his ancestors from a millennium ago. Young Dayindi (Gulpilil's son Jamie) covets one of the wives of his much older brother Minygululu (Minygululu). So when the two brothers join eight other canoeists on the annual hunt for magpie goose eggs, Minygululu takes the opportunity to tell Dayindi a cautionary tale.

Set in mythical times, Minygululu's story soon takes over the principal narrative. In it, young Yeeralparil (again played by Jamie Gulpilil) also covets one of the wives of his older brother Ridjimiraril (Crusoe) - but as the community's equilibrium is upset by kidnapping, sorcery, inter-tribal strife, misjudged revenge and lethal punishment, Yeeralparil comes to realise in the most unexpected way that illicit desire can only lead to trouble.

Ten Canoes turns out to be an archetypal shaggy-dog story - a yarn full of momentous incidents and complicated twists that all lead to a barely consequential misogynistic punchline, carrying viewers along with Dayindi and his fellow hunters on a wild goose chase for meaning.

Yet while Minygululu's tale may lack conventional economy, the details that it accumulates serve to dramatise, preserve and transmit an ancient culture's laws and lore in action. For woven into the story's strands are the oddities of Aboriginal witchcraft, the 'makaratta' ritual of retributive justice, and a ceremonial death dance, all of which bring coherence to Yeeralparil's community (if not to his story) - while in the end neither Yeelalparil nor Dayindi is left in any doubt as to why marriage is traditionally the prerogative of tribal elders.

Meanwhile the narrator's framing tale about Minygululu and Dayindi documents not only the traditions of the goose egg search, but also reconstructs famous photographs of the hunt taken in the mid-1930s by anthropologist Dr Donald Thompson. These photos captured a rare moment of mutual respect and collaboration between the native people of Ramingining and a white outsider, and De Heer's painstaking realisation of them in vivid black-and-white constitutes in itself another fruitful meeting of cultures that are more often divided.

The credentials of Ten Canoes as ethnographic docudrama and bridge-building exercise are beyond question, but it comes as a welcome surprise that the film is also genuinely entertaining rather than a mere curiosity piece. For what Ten Canoes lacks in engaging characters or strong plotting it more than makes up for in Ian Jones' stunning cinematography, editor Tania Nehme's seamless switching between stories set millennia apart, and the odd fart or dick joke to ground everything in the familiar.

The film's greatest attraction is the arch sophistication of David Gulpilil's story-telling, in which the layering of one tale within another forges a palpable continuity between dreamtime, tribal time and post-contact time, even as it demonstrates that the extreme durability of Aboriginal culture comes in part from its adaptability. It is a strange but compelling marriage between age-old primitivism and sharper-than-sharp modernism.

Cast & Connections

  • Actor: Crusoe Kurddal, Michael Dawu, David Gulpilil, Philip Gudthaykudthay, Peter Djigirr, Sonia Djarrabalminym, Peter Minygululu, Cassandra Malangarri Baker, Richard Birrinbirrin, Frances Djulibing, Jamie Dayindi Gulpilil Dalathngu
  • Director: Rolf de Heer, Peter Djigirr
  • Screen Writer: Rolf de Heer
  • Producer: Peter Djigirr, Julie Ryan
  • Photographer: Ian Jones

In a nutshell

When Rolf De Heer and Peter Djigirr's beautifully shot ethnographic fable takes a modernist look at Northern Australia's pre-history, only the unabashed misogyny seems out of date.

by Anton Bitel

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