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Arts & Culture

Review: 'Ten Canoes'

"Ten Canoes"
Palm Pictures
"Ten Canoes"

Ten canoes, three wives, one hundred and fifty spears... trouble. That's how Palm Pictures teases its new film "Ten Canoes" (opening August 10 at Landmarks Hillcrest Cinemas), an Australian film that sets a precedent by being shot almost entirely in the Aboriginal language of Ganalbingu.

The two-year collaboration also included the great Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil (who was memorably introduced to international audiences in the Nicholas Roeg film "Walkabout.) Gulpilil also acted in Rolf de Heer's film "The Tracker," and at that time he suggested a possible project set in his native Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. Gulpilil then showed de Heer a photo of ten canoes taken by anthropologist Donald Thomson, who was working in the Northern Territory during the 1930s. Thomson took thousands of pictures that provided a reference for the filmmakers. Images in the film such as an early shot looking down on ten canoes was carefully recreated from one of Thomsons pictures. Other photos provided insight into Aboriginal culture and were used by the film as well.

Focusing an Australian film on Aboriginal life could have been politically charged but "Ten Canoes" takes an unexpected approach to its material. The film definitely has something to say but it doesn't tap into overt issues of racial intolerance and inequities, nor does it romantically suggest that the old Aboriginal ways might be better and worth returning to. In fact, it refuses to make any direct connections to the current and often devastating social problems facing Aborigines living in Australia. Instead, "Ten Canoes" focuses on the art of storytelling and what that can reveal about a culture. In the process it also creates a vivid and authentic portrait of how things were. The trick or should I say the clever craft employed is that this seemingly simple act of telling of an old story involves a complex structure with three levels of narrative. Employing this oral tradition proves a subtle and effective way of providing Western audiences with insight into Aboriginal culture.


The film opens with David Gulpilil's narrator explaining what he's about to do -- this is the first layer of the story. He begins with: "Once upon a time in a land far, far away. No, it's not like that. It's not like your story, but it's a good story all the same." His disarming laughter welcomes us into his world and his humor will be a key factor in both winning us over and keeping us entertained.

The narrator goes on to summarize the story as follows: "One of the men, the young fella, has a wrong love, so the old man tell him a story, a story of the ancient ones, them wild and crazy ancestors who come after the spirit time, after the flood that covered the whole land. It's a good story, this story I'm gonna be telling you 'bout the ancient ones. There's more wrong love in this story, and plenty spears too, and plenty wives."

Gulpilil's narrator, who's been speaking over lush aerial shots of the land, continues to tease us, "Ahh, you gotta see this story of mine cause it'll make you laugh... Might cry a bit too eh? But then you laugh some more 'cause this story is a big true story of my people."

This leads us to the second layer of the story. A black and white shot framing device involving a group of Aboriginal tribesmen heading out on their annual goose-hunting expedition. Along the way they fashion canoes from bark, and sleep in platforms built high in the trees to avoid crocodiles. Minygululu (Peter Minygululu ), the leader, finds out that one of the young men, Dayindi (play by David Gulpilil's son Jamie), has become smitten with Minygululu's youngest wife. This prompts the third layer of storytelling (shot in gorgeous color) as Minygululu decides to weave an elaborate morality tale to teach young Dayindi a lesson and hopefully steer him away from the pretty young wife. The tale, which takes days to recount, involves jealousy, sorcery, inter-tribal conflict, and tribal laws and ceremonies. When the young man complains about the length of the story, were told that a story must grow into a large tree and all branches need to be told in order to understand the tale. Dayindi, at the very least, will learn about patience as he listens to Minygululu's story.

Although de Heer packs the film with rich anthropological detail don't think that this film is dull or dry in any way. There's a vibrant sense of life to the storytelling and robust, sometimes bawdy humor. At one point a stranger arrives wearing a loincloth of sorts, this prompts the men to wonder about whether the man is hiding something small. This provokes the comment, "Never trust a man with a small prick." At another point, the narrator tells us that the men were forming a war party and that each had his opinion. This leads to a montage in which the characters look directly into the camera (one even grabs it to make sure he has our attention) to tell us how the battle should be fought. This leads to humorously imagined outcomes. The casual and sometimes light-hearted tone of the story proves highly engaging, yet it doesn't prevent the story from also taking a few serious turns as well.


One of these serious turns involves the ritual of Makarrata, in which two tribes resolve an incident involving a killing. Two members of the offending tribe must face the wronged tribe, which hurls a barrage of spears until someone is hit. And later a death ritual is performed. Both scenes are beautifully and almost magically shot.

As with the Canadian Inuit film "Atanarjuat the Fast Runner," "Ten Canoes" tries to depict a culture from the inside as opposed from the outside. Previous Australian films dealing with Aboriginal characters have had, in varying degrees, a white, outside perspective-- "Walkabout," "The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith," "The Tracker," "Rabbit Proof Fence." The Aboriginal perspective of "Ten Canoes" gives the film a fresh quality while dealing with universal themes about human nature, and the relationship of men and women.

"Ten Canoes" (unrated but contains nudity, violence and sexual humor) serves up a celebration of storytelling and oral history. It also revels in the universal qualities of life that can transcend cultural differences.

Companion viewing: "Walkabout," "The Tracker," "Atanarjuat the Fast Runner"