A thousand years ago, in tribal times in the north of Australia, ten men, led by old Minygululu (Peter Minygululu), head into the forest to harvest barks for canoe making. It is the season of goose egg gathering, and the men have to get out onto the swamp and hunt the magpie geese and their eggs (always avoiding the crocs). Minygululu learns that young Dayindi (Jamie Gulpilil), has taken a fancy to Minygululu's third and youngest wife. Tribal law is in danger of being broken: Minygululu decides to deal with the situation by telling Dayindi an instructive, parallel, ancestral story, a story that will take a very long time to tell, all through the days of canoe making and swamp travelling and goose egg gathering.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Funny? That's what you don't expect from the first film made in an old indigenous language, by icons (from different parts of the cinematic spectrum) like David Gulpilil and Rolf de Heer. But funny it is. Laugh out loud funny, and consistently funny. The humour is character driven (but also woven into David Gulpilil's narration), situation reliant and recognisably universal. The humanity of the characters is so immediate and recognisable, that the only reason to accept its period setting(s) is the accoutrements like tools, dress, shelter and behaviour. Goose egg gathering is less practiced these days.
The subtitles are cheekily translated with a contemporary flavour, so much so that the language skirts dangerously close to being subverted, while saved from censure by reflecting a genuine insight into a culture most of us are barred from, through the language barrier.
The converse of 'high concept' movie making is not 'low concept': it's high value storytelling and Rolf de Heer's team has shown how it can be done - set in ancient tribal times in one of the most remote and untamed places on the Australian continent. The Arafura Swamp; it's hardly a name to inspire gasps of romantic fantasy, yet the settings are breathtaking. We can imagine how these places in the film look pretty much as they did at the time the story is told (1,000 years ago) and even at the time the inner story is told, many generations before that.
By making this ancient culture so accessible and so immediate - partly thanks to Gulpilil's contempo narration - the film plays an important role in bringing us all closer together, humour being the lubricant of the narrative. And while the film's technically creative achievements will add an extra layer of enjoyment for some, it's the traction of the storytelling that makes Ten Canoes so uplifting and fresh.
Review by Louise Keller:
Breathtakingly innovative, Ten Canoes is a visually lush and groundbreaking Australian film, exploring the very fabric of our indigenous heritage. Time is fluid as Rolf de Heer's unique work weaves colour and monotone in an intricate, complex tapestry. Giving an insight into the life and cultures of tribes in Arnhem Land, the story is the result of a winning collaboration between de Heer and aboriginal actor David Gulpilil. An added source of inspiration is the series of evocative black and white photographs taken by anthropologist Dr Donald Thompson, who lived among the Yolngu tribes in the 30s.
Watching the film, there is a sense of journeying into unknown territory. The themes of culture, tradition and mysticism linger, as they accentuate both our differences and similarities. The biggest surprise is the humour. With David Gulpilil's often irreverent and occasional mischievous narration, the dialogue (in Ganalbingu language) is revealing and at times hilarious. Full frontal nudity is simply part of the landscape. We are taken into a world that we have never seen before.
Once upon a time, far far away ... is how the story starts, but a fairy tale this is not. The juxtaposition of the narrative effectively pits its story beside an ancient myth involving kidnapping, sorcery and revenge. 'Never trust a man with a small prick,' says Crusoe Kurrdal's Ridjimiraril as a stranger approaches. The roles of men and women are strictly delineated: men go hunting, women are gatherers. Men may have more than one wife, but family matters are surprisingly similar to our own. Bickering is a daily occurrence. Wives simply behave 'like wives', bickering with each other and regularly accusing their husbands of being lazy slobs. There are many things about Ten Canoes that are remarkable. First and foremost is de Heer's respectful direction and treatment of the topics. The performances from non-actors are outstanding (Gulpilil's son Jamie is especially appealing) and the remote, crocodile infested settings spectacular. Above all, it is the way everyday life with its mundane ups and downs, rests beside the spiritual. Life and death each has its place. Dying is not a solitary occurrence, but one in which the tribe participates, as it supports the soul that searches its way to another place. This is indeed a journey whose ripples propel us to a distant place. May Ten Canoes find a wide and receptive audience.
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ROLF DE HEER INTERVIEW
TEN CANOES (M)
CAST: Crusoe Kurddal, Jamie Gulpilil, Richard Birrinbirrin, Peter Djigirr, Peter Minygululu, Frances Djulibing, Sonia Djarrabalminy, Philip Gudthaykudthay, Bobby Bunungurr, Michael Dawu, Johnny Pascoe, Billy Black, Steven Wilinydjanu, Carl Dhalurruma, Kathy Gonun, and Jennifer Djenana
NARRATION: David Gulpilil
PRODUCER: Rolf de Heer, Julie Ryan,
DIRECTOR: Rolf de Heer (Peter Djigirr, co-director)
SCRIPT: Rolf de Heer
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Ian Jones ACS
EDITOR: Tania Nehme
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Beverley Freeman
RUNNING TIME: 92 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Palace Films
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: June 29, 2006