Aboriginal life without the colonial backdrop

Ten Canoes: 92 minutes, Rating: M
Director: Rolf de Heer

Ten CanoesExotic and familiar, comic and tragic, Ten Canoes, which was released at the end of June, is a rare delight. Director Rolf De Heer is better known for the psychosexual suburban nightmares, Bad Boy Bubby and Alexandra’s Project. Co-written with its amateur cast, it is a fascinating and bittersweet tale of a people we know little about.

Like Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the storytelling occurs within the storytelling. David Gulpilil speaks to us in voiceover about the long-ago time, which then flashes even further back to ancient times. Aside from the English voiceover, the entire film uses the native Ganalbingu language of north-eastern Arnhem Land.

Ten CanoesThe story revolves around a remote Arafura tribe of families, where the old men take several wives, and the younger men in the hierarchy have none. It begins with young Dayindi (Jamie Gulpilil), falling for his brother’s youngest wife. On a goose egg hunt, his brother regales him with the tale of a time this happened before, and the consequences that ensued from ‘living the wrong way’, or breaking tribal law.

The story snakes away from our expectations, giving us a fascinating insight into the lives and cultures of the characters. Day-to-day life, conflict with other tribes, polygamy, reincarnation, sorcery and payback retribution are all embraced in a natural and non-judgemental manner. As Australian cinema has historically depicted Aborigines in relation to modern-day white society, the pre-colonial setting of Ten Canoes enables us to better identify with the characters.

A photograph of ten native men in their ten bark canoes on the Arafura swamp, taken by anthropologist Dr Donald Thomson in the 1930s, gives an impression of the film as a documentary. The pacing may be a little slow for some. The story also branches out in several directions at once.

Ten CanoesThe familiar Australian landscape is important. The characters see themselves not separated from the land or in conflict with it, but of the land itself. They come from the land, they will return to it, and they will come from the land once more. And the beauty of this area on screen never fails to amaze.

Universal and profound, with real and natural performances, Ten Canoes is a fascinating insight into the rich texture of the characters’ culturally diverse lives. Essentially optimistic and visually stunning, and made in an affectionate and humorous fashion, the film provides an absorbing and captivating glimpse into a part of humanity we may have neglected.



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