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The Times BFI 50th
London Film Festival

Ten Canoes
Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigirr

Ion Martea
19 October 2006

Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigirr have avoided the usual Western clichés in films about indigenous people. In Ten Canoes, the aim was not commercial success or a desire to portray a different way of life from that in the West, but to make a film that would be meaningful to the locals, a film that would act both as a celebration of ethnicity and as an educational tool for future generations. The result is a film of heart-breaking beauty, lyrical staging, and a plot that is poignant through its traditional storytelling technique.

David Gulpilil, Australia's leading ambassador of Aboriginal culture, is the film's heart. His voiceover is a mix of humour and melancholy. He tells us a story, a story that took place thousands of years ago, a story about his people, and to follow the local tradition, 'a good story must have a proper telling', even though 'sometimes they [the stories] take a long time to tell'.

But a good story cannot start somewhere in the middle, it has to start at the very beginning. And so, Gulpilil starts explaining his own story, one that is identical to all his ancestors' stories. He was at first a fish, swimming through time, only to gain human existence when his father left him 'to swim in his mother's vagina'. After his death, he will return to the water as a fish, 'waiting to be born again'.

Gulpilil tells us that in order to understand the story we are about to be told we have to take time and understand his people. Through humorous poetics, he alludes to various symbols and traditions, but it is a struggle to make sense of it all. By the time he opens the thousand-year-old story of Minygululu (Peter Minygululu) and his younger brother Dayindi (Jamie Gulpilil), who fell in love with the youngest wife of his elder sibling, we are under the impression that Heer and Djigirr's film might be meaningful to the Aboriginal population of the Arafura Swamp, Arnhem Land, in the north of the Australian Northern Territory, but quite meaningless as a piece of art.

Yet one has to have some patience, for there is time in our life to hear a good story. The two brothers are not the subject of this story: Minygululu decides to tell his younger brother a story from mythical times, soon after the creation of their people, when tribes were small, but united by respect and love for each of the members of the community.

Long, long ago, Ridjimiraril (played effectively by the dancer Crusoe Kurddal), lived with three wives: one wise, one jealous, one young and beautiful. He too had a younger brother Yeeralparil (Jamie Gulpilil again), who wanted the elder's younger wife. What begins as a morality tale ends after ninety minutes unexpectedly not with preaching, but with a sense of overpowering wisdom. In the story of Ridjimiraril we do not find intrigue, jealousy, hatred, but only love, respect, grief, humour, life and death reunited in a simple, yet inspiring web of human emotions.

Ten Canoes is advertised as 'a film like no other', and for once a publicity pitch is not misleading. The film boasts stunning cinematography from Ian Jones, alternating a black and white palette for the story from a thousand years ago, and a glorious composition of colour for the mythical story. Performances that are genuine in their understanding of ancestral lifestyle, at times humorous, at times delicately understated, work exceptionally well at establishing a mood of telling simplicity. It is a story told in the traditions of Aboriginal culture with no expectation to cool the Western thirst for meaning, action, suspense, romance, sex, and entertainment.

The film is a milestone in anthropological filmmaking. The key lies in hingeing the work not on imposed ideas, but on values hidden within the traditions of Aboriginal culture. By adapting such a storytelling technique to a modern work, Heer risks seeming cheap and dismissive, yet it is risk that must be taken. Ten Canoes is a revelation in its universal understanding of the human spirit, a humorous rendition of a time that will be captured again. For the population of the Arafura Swamp, the film is a hope that night will one day 'become empty of dark', so they 'could be born again'.

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