Ten Canoes

June 29th, 2006 Film, Film Reviews, Personalities, Xpress

Written and Directed by Rolf De Heer

Starring Jamie Gulpilil, Crusoe Kurrdal, Richard BirrinBirrin, David Gulpilil, Philip Gudthaykudthay

The Tracker and Alexandra’s Project are two movies drawn from very different places and times, but they share a single stark characteristic — few films have so shockingly shed light on the parts of Australia we know exists but try not to think about. They were (respectively) the stories playing out all over the outback during colonial days and behind many suburban front doors today.

So how is it a Dutch guy has tapped into Australian life in its myriad forms better than any other director in this country? To Rolf de Heer, the Holland native who lived in Indonesia before settling in Australia with his family at age eight, there are two reasons.

‘I feel completely Australian,’ the writer/director tells Xpress, ‘but I suppose because I’m not a product of the culture I’m a little outside it so I can observe it better. Plus, most directors are looking for a way to get to Hollywood. The people who pick up a camera and enter Tropfest and those sorts of things, that’s what they’re mostly aiming for.’

Content to live in Adelaide and film most of his movies there (with the exception of Ten Canoes, which saw him wading through a Northern Territory swamp), de Heer has no intention of following Philip Noyce or Roger Donaldson to Hollywood. When asked whether the millions a Hollywood studio can shower over a director is tempting, he shrugs. ‘That money comes at a cost. I do all my own budgeting and stick to it. It’s better than having an executive visiting the set demanding scenes every day.’

So why haven’t there been more stories about Aboriginal culture (or from it) on screen? In the case of Ten Canoes, De Heer describes himself as more a facilitator. It was the people of Ramingining — the area that provides the film’s setting — who wanted the story told, and actor David Gulpilil who invited de Heer to the area in 2003 to talk about it.

‘It’s bloody hard work,’ he recalls. ‘There are sensitivities involved. There’s been a lot of scripts around in Australia that have been edging around the edges of [indigenous culture], but for a long time the prevailing wisdom was that films with indigenous themes are poison at the box office. Since Rabbit Proof Fence and The Tracker, that’s not the case anymore.’

And if a floodgate’s been opened by de Heer and the project that bought Philip Noyce back home (Rabbit Proof Fence), we can expect to see a lot indigenous life on screens. And apart from the matter of keeping indigenous culture and languages alive while there are still people who remember them, what better fount of storytelling do we have from which to pluck a million tales of heroism, thrills, romance and terror as the Dreamtime? If nothing else, imagine the special effects…

Ten Canoes operates on a much smaller scale, telling a story-within-a-story of a young man who has his eye on the youngest and prettiest wife of an older member of the group, an infatuation that can only lead to trouble. At the same time, a mysterious stranger appears near the camp and the elders worry he’s a sorcerer carrying bad magic, firmly sending him on his way.

But this all happened long, long ago during antiquity, and the whole story is related during the annual magpie goose hunt in the Arafura swamps.

As an older, experienced hunter teaches a young novice how to collect materials for the canoes, construct them and use them to hunt the geese, he tells him the story in full. He’s heard the young man likes one of his wives, and the story is a fable about the vagaries of the heart and the trouble it can bring in a tribe that has to stick together.

The movie distinguishes between the two stories by depicting the story within the story in lush colour that captures the heart of the sunburnt northern bush, while the magpie hunters relating the tale are in monochrome.

The tale of the ill-fated affair and the people it affects is more affecting and has more of a storytelling focus for you to enjoy. The sequences of the hunters are interesting from an anthropological perspective but as a story they’re mostly redundant, more informative than engaging. As de Heer himself admits, the basis for all drama is conflict and the story of the hunt has none.

While you’re in the story of the scary stranger and the young lovers however, you almost forget you’re watching dark skinned people who lived in the bush and hunted for food tens of thousands of years ago, because the basis of the story — love, jealousy, kinship and humour — transcends skin colour, historical period and dialect.

It’s told entirely in the native language of the area and narrated both reverently and cheekily by David Gulpilil. Hopefully it’s the first of many native Australian stories — both to save the echoes of disappearing cultures and because indigenous people (like the Europeans who now own most of their country) love a good story.


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