Film Review #134: Ten Canoes
Director: Rolf de Heer
Cast: Jamie Gulpilil, David Gulpilil, Crusoe Kurddal
“It’s a good story,” confides the Storyteller to us in one of his asides. “It will help Dayindi live the proper way.” Voiced by the great Australian aboriginal actor David Gulpilil, whose son Jamie plays Dayindi in his debut screen role, this Storyteller’s gentle, humorous, sometimes chiding narration in English is specifically addressed to outsiders – “you other mob” – and it’s what allows us to eavesdrop on a distant, ancient world whose characters speak entirely in indigenous languages.
Set near Australia’s northern coast in Arnhem Land before the first contact with Westerners, Ten Canoes recounts how one man, Minygululu (Peter Minygululu), knowing his younger brother Dayindi is jealous of his three wives and seriously eyeing the youngest, tells Dayindi an ancient story with a similar plot. The two are part of a group of men who set out to collect goose eggs in the Arafura Swamp some ways from their tiny village, an annual undertaking that requires them to build new bark canoes. Thus the older brother’s story – in which the “dream time” characters themselves also tell a story, an origin myth from which their law flows – is wrapped inside the Storyteller’s tale too, like three nested boxes, so we left to consider the ancient purposes of storytelling in communities and families that could include our own.
All this may sound like an anthro classroom. But Ten Canoes is entertaining, funny, dramatic and, thanks to DP Ian Jones’ camera work, swooningly lovely to look at throughout. As well, it won the Special Jury Prize at Cannes, given for films that make contributions of special significance to film as an art form. So much does Ten Canoes enlarge and refresh the storytelling function of film that it also was Australia’s official 2007 Oscar entry. Ten Canoes opened theatrically in the US in June, running in limited release until just two weeks ago. Without much fanfare – not even cited in weekly media notices of new DVD releases – it quietly arrived on DVD a few weeks back.
Held together by the Storyteller’s voice, Ten Canoes alternates between the merely long-ago brothers on their goose-egg hunt and the ancient times. By the simple device of filming the present and the ancient times in full color and the middle period’s core story of Dayindi in black and white, we can shuttle between these two plots smoothly, revisiting the swamp trip at key points. Most of the actors have dual roles. So when Dayindi hears about the ancient impatient and jealous younger brother, Yeeralparil, he imagines himself as that young man, just as he imagines Minygululu’s wives as their ancient counterparts, and so forth.
Intriguingly, the exception to this double-casting is the older brother in the ancient tale, Ridjimiraril (Crusoe Kurddal), a younger, more warrior-like figure as Dayindi imagines him. The ancient plot parallels Dayindi’s dilemma, except that in the ancient time the older brother mistakenly kills a stranger he believes stole one of his wives, and has to accept the “payback” ceremony, in which his younger brother stands with him as the neighboring tribe hurl spears at them. Ridjimiraril’s injury and death ensue – not something Dayindi really wishes for Minygululu after all.
Ten Canoes results from David Gulpilil’s persistent invitation to director Rolf de Heer to visit the actor in his home community of Ramingining and make a film with the Yolngu people still living there. Gulpilil’s first screen role at age 15 was in Nicholas Roeg’s classic Walkabout (1970). Since then, if you’ve seen Aussie films like Crocodile Dundee, The Last Wave, and last year’s bracing Outback Western, The Proposition, you’ve seen Gulpilil. In 2002 he appeared in Rabbit Proof Fence and Rolf de Heer’s The Tracker, films that, like The Proposition, took sharply critical views of colonial treatment of indigenous communities. This was just a year after Canada’s Inuit made the first feature-length film wholly in their own language, Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, also a re-telling of an ancient story of jealousy, desire and revenge before European contact.
Gulpilil himself suggested the subject of Ten Canoes to de Heer based on 1930s photographs by anthropologist Donald Thomson – in particular one of ten men in canoes in the marshes at Arafura – of which there are some 4,000 archived in the Victoria Museum. The DVD contains excellent bonus features, including a short interview with de Heer, material on Donald Thomson’s work, and a making-of doc for television with extensive material about how Gulpilil’s community participated in filming decisions, chief among these the issue of how to cast the roles – de Heer says he merely was the instrument of their film – and to the great satisfaction of their community re-learned canoe-building and other skills to produce the film. Ten Canoes is exciting further evidence of the global emergence of indigenous cinema and its repairing effects of home communities and outsiders alike.
This review appeared in the 11/1/07 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not open theatrically in CNY & older films of enduring worth.