Ten Canoes

June 1st, 2006 Film, Film Reviews, Filmink

With a history longer than most other cultures on Earth, it’s a wonder more movies haven’t been made about Indigenous Australian folklore. Combined with our famously marketable landscape, you’d think special effects extravaganzas about the spirits of the dreamtime would put Hollywood to shame.

Any film about Aboriginals is going to have political baggage today — no matter how intentional — and the temptation must be strong for directors eager for politically correct kudos to get preachy.

De Heer routinely and effortlessly strikes right to the very heart of Australian culture in his films. In Ten Canoes, he plucks a story from aboriginal heritage and tells it with the bravado and boisterous fun it was intended but none of the heavy-handedness of a lecture.

Among a group of hunters in the far north are two men, the younger one of whom fancies one of the older man’s wives. As they build their bark canoes and hunt, the older man tells the young protégé a story about similar circumstances eons before and the fates that befell those involved.

Our gaze moves between the hunting party at work and the characters of the ancient fable, the venerable David Gulpilil narrating it all. The story of the star-cross’d lovers is more interesting and de Heer’s desire to show a slice of indigenous life makes the canoe hunters sequences feel a little too much like an education piece for schoolkids. Though fascinating, it’s disjointed and belongs in a documentary.

But the trials and tribulations of the story within the story infuse the film with warm-hearted humour and a love of storytelling that characterises not just indigenous Australians, but humanity.


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