Australia: Ten Canoes

(2006, dir: Rolf de Heer; language: Yolngu Matha, Gunwinggu, English)

Ten Canoes is beautiful, hilarious, moving and fascinating, and difficult to categorise. The multiple-award winning film is presented as a story, with lively narration by the iconic David Gulpilil, telling of a party of goose-hunters in a time before European colonisation. The young, impatient Dayindi (played by Gulpilil’s son, Jamie) covets his older brother Minygululu’s beautiful youngest wife. In a story-within-a-story, Minygululu tells Dayindi a tale from even further back in Australia’s past, in an attempt to teach the young man about the virtues of patience, and that getting your hearts desire may turn out to be more than you bargained for. What at first proves to be a simple tale grows, as they say in the film, “like a tree”, incorporating a magician, a kidnapping, and a case of mistaken identity before everything draws together again. I thoroughly enjoyed the film, with it’s beautiful cinematography, talented cast, elegant structure, and humorous camera-work.

While Australia has a sizeable film industry and there are a lot of well-regarded films to choose from, I chose Ten Canoes because it’s something I’ve been wanting to see for ages, and had finally recently bought the DVD off my dear friend Hayden (who blogs here about all kinds of weird and wonderful films from various corners of the globe). But I thought it was especially appropriate for this project as it is the first film to be filmed entirely in Aboriginal Australian languages. I watched the version with narration in English, but on the two-disc DVD set you can also choose to watch it with the narration too in Aboriginal languages (with or without English subtitles). Some people have voiced concern about the film being directed and co-written by a white Australian, a concern which is definitely worth addressing. De Heer has responded by saying “[The People of Ramingining] are telling the story, largely, and I’m the mechanism by which they can.” Certainly, the credits has a promising list of Aboriginal names (although not so much in the higher-level production roles), and the documentary DVD extras that I watched showed de Heer (and the English language) taking a decidedly backseat role, but the fact that international and even local recognition of indigenous stories comes only through the lens and privilege of a white film-maker is something worth reflecting on in itself.

For me as a viewer, this film gave some rich glimpses into the language, culture and mythology of a people all too often forgotten, marginalised or outright silenced since Australia’s brutal colonisation. Aborigines in Australia are still abused and oppressed by the Australian government as well as large numbers of other Australians that interact with them. As a showcase of their Australia, before its invasion by Europeans, this film highlights the importance of language and stories as a political force, as a means to take control over the representation of one’s surroundings and to remember what has been lost.

It was also a pleasure to have an intimate encounter with the amazing landscape of Arnhemland, and learn about the ingenious ways that its inhabitants adapted to the challenges and resources of the local environment. Australia is a huge and diverse continent in terms of geography and ecology, of which I have only seen a little in person. The film’s soaring shots over the swamplands, and elegant movement through the trees, were as satisfying to my desire for new landscapes as any travel documentary.

Finally, the film was a comforting, funny, and joyous reminder that – trite as it may sound – people are people. Sometimes I find it difficult to imagine the internal lives and thought processes of people removed from myself by time or space. What did people think and feel 1,000 years ago, or 5,000 years ago – when the premises on which society was based seem so different? What goes on in the heads of people living today in surroundings so different from mine? These questions are one of the reasons that I’m pursuing this project, as I firmly believe that one of the best ways to challenge these barriers to empathy and understanding is to listen and learn from what other people are willing to tell. Films like Ten Canoes are excellent for this purpose – although the narrator of the film makes it clear that it is his story, not ‘our’ (the viewer’s story), the viewer can nevertheless find elements of themselves in these historic/mythical characters, and vice versa. Farts are, and it appears always have been, universally hilarious. Young people are and always have been hotheaded, overeager, and blinded by sexual/romantic desire. We are and always have been concerned with what happens to our poo. Relationships and responsibility are and always have been wonderful, worrying, and complicated. (Of course these are generalisations, but that’s the point – social aspects that have been recognisable throughout human history, if not necessarily true for each and every individual.)

Shoutout: More from Australia

For those interested in more Australian films, although most with a more white Australian focus, I can recommend the following favourites: The Castle (1997, comedy), Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002, drama about Australia’s stolen generation); Looking for Alibrandi (2000 teen drama); The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994, comedy-drama and pretty much a must-see); Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975, gorgeous mystery drama); and The Slap (2011, drama TV miniseries). High up on my to-watch list from Australia are: Lantana (2001); The Cars That Ate Paris (1974); My Brilliant Career (1979); Shine (1996); Walkabout (1971); and Mad Max (1979, no, I haven’t seen Mad Max. I’m sorry.).


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