Ten Canoes

Palm Pictures
Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigirr/Australia 2006

“Once upon a time, in a land far, far away … (chuckle) no, I’m only joking …” is the first line of this surprising, original and beautiful story from Dutch Australian director Rolf de Heer. In a collaboration with Peter Djigirr and screen icon David Gulpilil (Crocodile Dundee, Rabbit-Proof Fence, The Proposition) Ten Canoes tells a story within a story.

In the 1930s, anthropologist Dr. Donald Thomson took a black and white photograph of ten native hunters in their traditional, bark canoes on the Arafura Swamp, in northeastern Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. This photograph, which Gulpilil showed to de Heer, was the inspiration for this charming and witty fable.

A group of aboriginal tribesmen are out hunting geese and eggs, and making the rafts they will use to acquire them. Word has reached one of the elders, Minygululu (Peter Minygululu) that the youngest of the warriors, Dayindi, played by David Gulpilil’s son Jamie, has an unhealthy interest in his youngest wife. Rather than punish or chastise him, the wise elder tells him a story of long ago when another warrior had similar feelings towards another man’s wife.

What unfolds is a fascinating – and often funny – morality tale about being careful what you wish for. Most of the cast have never acted before, but this is not evident for the most part; and the characters are immediately identifiable and accessible. The actors had to relearn some of the traditional skills of their forefathers – making the canoes, for example, and these elements make the whole experience more believable.

These are an ancient people, seemingly far removed from modern, Western culture, but Ten Canoes reveals them to be just like us in almost every way. The wily Birrinbirrin, played by the Boomalli Aboriginal Artists Cooperative treasurer Richard Birrinbirrin, is gloriously charming as the old, lazy and slightly plump elder with a passion for honey. Apart from being a dead ringer for Winnie the Pooh, everyone will surely recognize an elderly relative in Birrinbirrin.

The dialogue is fairly contemporary, but all spoken in the aboriginal languages of the time. The 1930s’ segments are shot in black and white to reflect the authenticity of the photographs taken by Dr. Thomson, and the rest of the film is in lavish color. The landscape of Australia is captured in close-up; the sacred water-holes, bush, and swamps are so intimately filmed that you could happily follow the camera around for hours. The sounds of the water and the wildlife that live there are so evocative that you can almost feel the humidity in the air.

It is a simple story, told simply but elegantly, so the audience never feels cheated. The ever-present voice of David Gulpilil, who narrates in English, carries the action along and constantly reminds you that a good story shouldn’t be rushed, but understands our unfortunate lack of attention span. This style of laid-back storytelling is reminiscent of Treebeard in The Lord of the Rings, who contends that if something is worth saying, it is worth taking a long time to say it.

It is also worth saying that no political messages are pushed in this movie. The film strives to promote a gentle understanding of people who have lived in Australia for thousands of years. By showing the characters as ordinary people trying to survive by their own laws and traditions, concerned with the everyday issues of love, marriage, and the arrival of a stranger in town, de Heer skilfully avoids rhetoric and political ear-bending.

Ten Canoes is a joy to behold. Simple, beautifully shot by Ian Jones and guaranteed to make you smile. This film also has the unusual distinction of being eloquently encapsulated by its tag-line: “Ten canoes, three wives, 150 spears … trouble.”

Enjoy, it’s proper good. True thing.

© 2006 Phillip Piggott. All rights reserved.

Leave a Response

You must be logged in to post a comment.