Ten Canoes

dir: Rolf de Heer & David Djigirr
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For the first Australian film made entirely in an indigenous language, Ten Canoes has quite modest ambitions. There’s nothing political or activist going on, it’s not representing anything that deep or significant about indigenous culture, contemporary problems or earnest, well-meaning social commentary. So you can breathe a collective sigh of relief. Ah, that’s better.

It’s just a story within a story about a bunch of people living at the top end of Australia before colonisation. Pretty simple. They make fart jokes, they believe superstitious nonsense about sorcerers and people doing bad stuff to them by putting spells on their shit, and they sometimes covet each other’s wives. Simple people living simple lives.

We are introduced to the storyteller, voiced by David Gulpilil, who pretends he’s going to start the story with ‘a long time ago, in a land far, far away’, then takes that back after laughing. He then tells us gradually of the Dreamtime process of birth for his ancestors, and the way of all births, being the soul waiting at their individual waterholes until it becomes time for them to be put in their mother’s womb before being born.

The tale he patiently, meanderingly tells is meant to be of Dayindi (Jamie Gulpilil) and some members of his tribe collecting goose eggs and hunting geese, as Dayindi is being told a story by his older brother Minygululu. You see, Dayindi has the hots for one of Minygululu’s wives, the youngest one, so old Minygululu wants to nip this in the bud with some thinly veiled attempt to convince Dayindi of what a bad idea that would be.

So Minygululu starts telling Dayindi a tale of one of their ancestors, a strapping young lad called Ridjimiraril (Crusoe Kurddal). Ridjimiraril also, coincidentally, has a younger brother called Yeeraparil (also played by Jamie Gulpilil), who also has the hots for his youngest wife. Who’d have thunk it?

Instead of it being a cautionary tale trying to convince Dayindi of the virtue of not cutting his brother’s lunch, it’s more a tale about patience, about living in harmony with the laws of the land, and not letting anger take over one’s heart.

A stranger appears at the edge of the tribes’ lands, with different hair and a different language than the one spoken by the tribe. They are afraid of him, and try to send him on his way rapidly without antagonising him. Their fear stems from his possible powers as a sorcerer.

When they return to their digs, Ridjimiraril’s second wife Nowalingu (Frances Djulibing) has gone missing, with no clues as to why.

The search for Nowalingu, and Ridjimiraril’s anger lead to conflict with another tribe, and danger for these simple folk.

The story is sedately, calmly doled out like good candy from a stranger’s car window. Dayindi’s initial disaffection with being told the story / lecture gives way to impatience, curiousity and finally engagement. The languid pace and humour serves the story well, which is, after all, a kind of non-romantic version of the classic Princess Bride, except gone ethnographic.

The language doesn’t present a difficulty because the story isn’t filled with rapid-fire dialogue, matching the pace of the editing, and the subtitles work well. There’s a fair bit of humour in the tale, of both the lowbrow and more broadly comedic variety. One of the older guys in the tribe, Birrinbirrin, is obsessed with honey, and continually begs others to get honey for him. When some good kids bring him some, he thanks them for it, and tells them to get their own when they ask for a taste.

The ending of Ridjimiraril’s story is also, at least from Dayindi / Yeeraparil’s point of view, hilarious. It’s a perfect case of the need to be careful for what you wish for, because you may just get it in the end.

It’s hard to not like a film like this, and it’s not for any reasons of political correctness. The acting may not be Shakespearean in its qualities, but it’s appropriate to the material. The scenery is beautiful, and compliments the story in the most natural way possible. The use of black and white footage and colour to differentiate the two stories works well and matches the decent cinematography.

It still doesn’t add up to the film having any great significance or making any profound impression, at least on this reviewer. But not every film has to. All it tries to do is entertain us with a low-key story about a bunch of people living like their ancestors did and getting by in their daily tribal lives. There’s nothing wrong with that. There’s a simplicity and honesty to such a stance that’s hard to argue with.

Rolf de Heer is the kind of director who has no fear when it comes to making uncompromising films about uncompromising subject matter. This is, after all, the guy who made Bad Boy Bubby, which was, admittedly, a rip off of the Werner Herzog film The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser. Maybe not rip-off, perhaps homage. Whatever, it’s still a pretty good film. He’s made a bunch of other films in the mean time, of singular vision even if they don’t always connect with audiences. And by audiences, I mean me, of course.

He clearly has no intention of making films that feel false or that pander to commercial interests, which is lovely, because it means making a challenging film like this (that’s not to imply any of the subject matter was challenging or transgressive or anything, just its production and the language aspects) interests him.

He’s also managed to not pander by delivering an idealised, romanticised portrait of Noble Savages at play in the perfect state of nature prior to colonisation. These people are shown living the kind of life they might have lived for thousands of years, with violence, with multiple wives, with kidnapping and rape, and pointless death, as well as mutual respect, humour and concern for one another.

They’re also represented as having respect for each other’s traditions, which are seen as necessary to remain at peace with each other and with the land. Any of the blathering about ethnographic whitewashing (pun not intended) by some of Australia’s more poisonous commentators and opinionators in some of the News Limited press was patent bullshit from fuckers who clearly didn’t see the flick. But then again, what else would you expect.

That doesn’t mean the flick is a masterpiece, but then again, it doesn’t need to be. I’ll settle for amusing and mildly entertaining over ‘important’, earnest and dull any day.

6 times having three wives seems like more trouble than it would be worth out of 10

“And they all lived happily ever after… nah they didn’t. Truth is, I don’t know how they lived afterwards”, the Storyteller, Ten Canoes.