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Playing by the rules

Sandy Cameron reviews Ten Canoes

Sandy Cameron is an Adelaide writer and graduate in Screen Studies and Law from Flinders University.

Ten Canoes Ten Canoes
In an interview with RealTime during the principal photography of his Indigenous language cautionary fable, Ten Canoes, writer, director and producer Rolf de Heer revealed, “Ultimately, I wrote a script that conformed to the parameters that were set for me” (RT68, p22). The finished film is proof that de Heer is adroit at turning constraints to advantage in a fine tragicomedy not only of considerable historical significance, but also containing its own distinctive narrative and production elements. There is little doubt that Ten Canoes will be fittingly recognised in Australia and internationally. It has already won the Special Jury Prize at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival in the Un Certain Regard section.

The intrinsic rules placed on de Heer included the desire of his collaborators, the Yolngu people of Ramingining (local elder Peter Djigirr is co-director), to include certain ethnographic details so the film could also serve as an object of historical posterity for the community. To this end, one layer of the narrative centres on canoe building and goose egg gathering, significant rites and activities that the Yolngu wished to record as a capsule of traditional activities. De Heer uses this action as the platform for the main narrative; set centuries ago against the backdrop of these daily hunter-gatherer tasks, a Yolngu elder, Minygululu, imparts an instructional tale to his younger sibling Dayindi who lusts after the elder man’s wife. The mythic tale told by Minygululu is expressed in a sequence of flashbacks and forms the chief action of the film, and is brimming with dramatic tension including instances of mistaken identity, forbidden love and violence.

In entwining these 2 narrative strands, the film cleverly echoes the episodic and elliptical storytelling patterns of some Australian Indigenous cultures. There are discursive diversions, explorations of alternate versions of the events, and the plot’s pacing is punctuated by ruminative breaks: several times Minygululu’s story halts for a moment and the perspective returns to the goose egg gatherers. As they set camp or cook some food, Minygululu chides his brother for his impatience to hear the end of the story. A further story strand is layered in by way of a friendly omniscient narration, spoken in English with the distinctive voice of David Gulpilil giving the on screen action an easy accessibility.

From the very first diegetic exchange in the film, a variation on the ‘silent but deadly’ fart gag, it is plain that de Heer is reaching for universal resonance through breadth of humour. On the whole he is successful: it is very enjoyable to see the group of canoe-builders verbally needling young Dayindi because of his crush, and scenes involving the corpulent elder Birrinbirrin build an easy bridge between Arnhem Land of a thousand years ago and contemporary mores. Counterbalancing the moments of near slapstick is a more lugubrious tone provided by occasional reminders of the cheapness of life. Perhaps most representative of this mix is the film’s denouement which manages to match the amusing aphorism “be careful what you wish for,” with sorrowful circumstances.

Ten Canoes was partly inspired by the research and photography of anthropologist Donald Thomson, and the visual style of the film certainly is informed by his 1930s work. The goose egg scenes are shot in pristine black and white, often with a locked-off camera and are highly reminiscent of classical landscape portraiture, even the figures move minimally and slowly. Great assistance is provided by the hauntingly photogenic Arafura swamp. Contrastingly, Minygululu’s story is shot in colour with more dynamic movement within the frame, often encircling smooth steadicam shots. It is rare to see such an articulated stylistic division within an Australian film, and director of photography Ian Jones and his department are to be commended for its precise execution.

To return to de Heer’s production parameters, it was the exclusive and necessary use of non-actors that posed the biggest risk of diminishing the impact of the film, and the term non-actors here means a cast with only the most rudimentary conceptual handle on fictionalised performance. However, the cast is almost uniformly outstanding. Of particular excellence is Crusoe Kurrdal, who plays the central warrior in Minygululu’s tale with a sense of powerful fatalism, Jamie Dayindi Gulpilil Dalaithngu in a dual role as confused apprentices, and Richard Birrinbirrin in a natural comic turn as a greedy honeyeater. These performances are also attributable to de Heer’s directorial skill and his rich association with the Ramingining community.

Much will be made—as it should be—of the status of Ten Canoes as an Indigenous language film, and as an historical marker with an Indigenous perspective. But this is far more than a curiosity piece—it is a well-nuanced and strikingly designed film deserving of wide attention.


Ten Canoes, director Rolf de Heer, co-director: Peter Djigirr, producers Rolf de Heer, Julie Ryan. National release June 29.

Sandy Cameron is an Adelaide writer and graduate in Screen Studies and Law from Flinders University.

RealTime issue #73 June-July 2006 pg. 18

© Sandy Cameron; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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