Judge Jennifer Malkowski spotted a leak in one of those canoes. And then there were nine.
150 spears, 10 canoes, 3 wives: Trouble.
Don't be fooled by the above tagline; Ten Canoes is nothing as simple as a down-under, native sex comedy. As the film's narrator promises, it is "a story like they never seen before," a story from the mythical past of the Yolngu, Indigenous Australians from the Arnhem Land region. And it's not just the story that we've "never seen before," but also the kind of deeply impressive collaboration between director Rolf de Heer and the Yolngu of Ramingining that shaped its telling. The result is the most stunningly beautiful and moving film I've seen all year.
Facts of the Case
Employing three layers of storytelling and many different visual styles, Ten Canoes has a complex narrative structure. It begins with full-color aerial shots of Arnhem Land, with an offscreen narrator (David Gulpilil) from the present preparing us for a story about his people's past. He tells us about an ancestor of a few generations back, Minygululu (Peter Minygululu), who is teaching his young brother, Dayindi (Jamie Gulpilil), how to make bark canoes and hunt the magpie geese—all shown in very still, black-and-white shots. Dayindi is infatuated with Minygululu's youngest wife, so to show Dayindi his mistake and teach him the "proper way," Minygululu tells him another story from the mythical past.
The film now transitions back to color and to a more mobile camera style for the story of Yeeralparil (also played by Jamie Gulpilil) and his older brother Ridjimiraril, who are caught in a parallel love triangle concerning Ridjimiraril's youngest wife, Munandjarra (Cassandra Malangarri Baker). This romance is caught up in the intrusion of a stranger (Michael Dawu) into camp, the disappearance of Ridjimiraril's second wife, Nowalingu (Frances Djulibing), and a tribal war that ensues.
At the 2006 Telluride Film Festival, I attended a screening of Ten Canoes that was part of a tribute to Rolf de Heer, an Australian director I was not familiar with. The screening took place in the smaller venues, and though de Heer was there in person, the house did not quite fill. It was not one of the most anticipated films of the festival, by any means. Perhaps that was because Ten Canoes is set in the mythic past of Indigenous Australians, the Yolngu people; it features no big stars and a spoken language, Ganalbingu, that no one attending would understand. The pacing is much slower than even most independent fare, and action, drama, and romance were not abundant. Indeed, many of my fellow attendees were less than wooed by it—some of them even indulged in a nap while the characters made bark canoes. But I found the film quietly beautiful, deeply engaging, and culturally fascinating. Indeed, of the 16 movies I saw in those four days, it was the one that stayed with me most strongly. I vaguely knew that there had been a unique collaboration involved between de Heer and the Indigenous Australian actors, and I started to think about writing on Ten Canoes.
I did write a paper on the film for a graduate-level seminar at UC Berkeley, and as I began to research the film, I prepared for the "but" moment that inevitably comes when studying ethnographic filmmaking: "This is a beautiful film, but the actors were exploited…but the process wasn't collaborative…but their traditions were misrepresented." But, as I got deeper into the production, I was surprised to find very few "buts" in what, by all available accounts, was a truly collaborative and overwhelmingly positive process. And process is the key word there, even within the final product, the film itself. In storytelling, in making traditional canoes, or even in this new venture of making a film, what seems most important to the Yolngu is how things are done, and doing things the "proper way." The way de Heer and the Yolngu negotiate the tension between that "proper way" and the product-oriented way of Western filmmaking, both behind the scenes and on-screen, makes Ten Canoes an impressive example of collaborative art, and perhaps even a model for other projects of this nature, a new "proper way."
That new "proper way" started to take shape when de Heer accepted renowned Indigenous Australian actor David Gulpilil's invitation to make a film in his hometown, Ramingining. There a strong community interest in cultural renewal and a reclaiming of traditions that had fallen away became a driving force behind Ten Canoes, and an interest in "the old ways" as they were before contact with whites is reflected in the choice of a pre-contact setting as the main time period of the film. One episode of contact with Balanda (a Yolngu term for white folk) that set a precedent for de Heer's work and became a huge influence on Ten Canoes was the time Australian anthropologist Donald Thomson spent in Arnhem Land in the 1930s. Thomson is a rare example of a white interloper who was welcomed and respected, and continues to be beloved by the Yolngu today. Part of the reason for their appreciation of Thomson is the collection of thousands of black-and-white photographs that he took among their people. These photos have widely circulated in Ramginining, and the residents consider them one of their most valued links to their ancestors. Their role in the community is so great that the Yolngu refer to that period in their history as "Thomson Time," for which there is great nostalgia. One of these photos, depicting ten men traveling the swamp in traditional bark canoes, became the visual starting point for the story of the film (compared here with Ten Canoes' color recreation of it):
The cast of canoeists made the canoes themselves—a task that hadn't been undertaken in decades—relearning and recapturing "the old ways" both for the film and for their people. This type of cultural renewal is cited by many of the Yolngu as their reason for making the film. As Michael Dawu explains, "We lost all that. Lost all that tradition. They forgot it. Our old people took it with them when they died. But now Rolf de Ralf and his group came here and opened our minds. He showed us the [Thomson] photos. We decided to make this film for our future…This is our memory for our people." Yolngu culture dominates the film, not just on screen but behind the scenes as well. The Yolngu crafted all of their own costumes, props, and sets. Casting was done in accordance with incredibly complex kinship laws that overruled Western practices of casting based on appearance and acting ability. The crew even burnt termite mounds to create smoke for the film's only night scene instead of flying industry-standard smoke machines in from Darwin.
Just as the production of Ten Canoes strives to find the Yolngu "proper way" in the face of Western filmmaking conventions, the story itself also strives to reconcile this cultural tension. The audience is aware of that tension from the start, thanks to the wonderful narration by David Gulpilil, which begins over a helicopter aerial shot moving along a river:
"Once upon a time in a land far, far away."
After a brief pause, the spell of solemnity and Western storytelling's impersonal mode of address is broken as the storyteller lets out a raspy peal of laughter and says, "Nah, not like that. I'm only joking." Suddenly, the calm sense of mastery we feel with the bird's-eye view of the land and our culture's familiar storytelling mode is reconfigured. The mastery of the helicopter shot is not ours, but the storyteller's—a topsy-turvy "voice of God" narrator unlike any audiences have encountered before. He is in control and is free to toy with his listeners as he sees fit, but all—we soon learn—for our own good. "But I am going to tell you a story," he continues, "It's not your story. It's my story. A story like you've never seen before. But you want a proper story, huh? Then I must tell you something of my people and my land. Then you can see the story, and know it." By referencing and discarding both traditional European fairytales and Star Wars in the line "Once upon a time in a land far, far away" that is laughed away, he rejects Western written and filmic means of telling a mythical tale. But the storyteller cannot ignore his medium: the same as Star Wars, a commercial feature film. There is a negotiation between cultures going on behind the storyteller's playful antagonism, and there is a warmth to his tone and a genuine desire to communicate, to help us "see the story, and know it." But there are compromises that will not be made, and the storyteller remains present throughout the film as a reminder of the cultural mediation required.
As in this introduction, Ten Canoes is always struggling to balance Western ways with Yolngu tradition. But it's always a productive struggle—a collision of cultures whose wreckage is sprawling and gorgeous and complicated. The pacing is slow by Western standards and the three stories are continually interrupting each other—reflecting the days-long, fragmented stories of the Yolngu—but those who manage to adapt to the languid timing will come to love it. The tone jumps around among recognizable genres, by turns drama, comedy, romance, suspense, melodrama, and even National Geographic-style nature film, as in breathtaking images like this one:
The storyteller compares Minygululu's story to a growing, living tree, and as we travel along its branches, we eventually find their ends. These ends don't come to us without resistance, though, as the storyteller explains: "Dayindi is learning one important thing for his life. He's learning to be patient. But you, you're impatient to see the rest of the story, huh? I know that! So I'll tell you what happened." We see what happens to Ridjimiraril after his war, we learn the fate of Nowalingu, and we get a resolution of both Dayindi's and Yeeralparil's love triangles. But these endings, too, are part of that cultural wreckage and we leave the film unsure of whether we've truly been able to "see the story, and know it," as the Storyteller promised.
Like Dayindi, we still have a lot to learn. And without the kind of access he gets to Minygululu's story, the sense in which we can "see the story, and know it" remains limited. As the storyteller predicted, Minygululu's story did take "long time to tell. Days even." But despite its slow pace and fragmented, jumpy narrative style, the three nested stories we get to hear take only 92 minutes to tell. And here, in the running time, is the film's most productive failure, the place where Western cinematic conventions cannot contain Yolngu traditions. Within the institutional system of film financing, distribution, and reception, the story could not aspire to last "days even." In 92 minutes, we cannot fully learn the Yolngu way "to be patient," and Ten Canoes remains just a first step in understanding the ways of their culture.
To supplement this complex and amazing film, Palm Pictures offers a nice array of special features. Chief among them is the making-of documentary, "The Balanda and the Bark Canoes." At almost an hour long, this documentary provides a solid introduction to the ground-breaking collaborative process that made Ten Canoes possible. Here de Heer's voice replaces the storytellers, and if he sounds (and acts) a bit paternalistic, I ultimately believed his sentiment that, "Although I was to help them make it, it would be their film. And as much as possible, it would be done their way, not the Balanda way." We get access here to the Yolngu themselves, sometimes in interview, and learn a bit more about their motivations for and problems with doing the film. The most unfortunate parts of the documentary are de Heer's occasional dramatics, a bit too reminiscent of Robert Flaherty and his Nanook of the North, in lines like, "Not much happens in Ramingining, other than a slow and inevitable loss of the old ways." A brief, four-minute interview with de Heer adds a bit more to his portrait in "The Balanda and the Bark Canoes," as does a similarly short interview with Peter Djigirr. Djugirr elaborates on his reasons for making the film: "So after we die, maybe the new generation will grow up so they can see the picture—where we're going and where they started from. That's what I want to see." An "aerial map" of Arnhem Land and a brief comparison of the Thomson photos to images from the film add geographical and historical perspective. And lastly, the theatrical trailer is most interesting in the way it is misleading, marketing the film to cozily fit into Western genres: "There's war in this story, and sorcery, and a belly as big as a mountain. There's wrong love and wrong revenge." Palm Pictures also does a nice job with the transfer of the film, preserving the stunning colors and diverse sounds of the original feature.
If part of the lesson of Ten Canoes is that nothing changes—wives always quibble and get jealous, young men always want to go to war—then the counter-lesson of Ramingining today is that things do change. Culture gets lost and you have to take action to call the past back up. By collaborating with Rolf de Heer on Ten Canoes, the people of Ramingining hoped to do just that.
To begin to measure their success, I examined the community response to the finished film, introduced to the community at a nighttime screening on a basketball court, which around 1,000 people from the area attended. Associate Producer Belinda Scott, director of the town's Bula'bula Arts center, described the screening to me in an e-mail interview:
"There was absolute elation at the screening, so much laughter and vociferous support…the kids would not be silent…due to their immense excitement…However, the most striking thing was that each time Minygululu told the next part of his story to Dayindi a great silence overcame the audience, the kids sitting spellbound. To me, this actively demonstrated that the younger generations do listen to the old wise men, and that storytelling remains integral to one's education as a Yolngu."
If we take community response to the product of collaborative project as one indication of its success or failure—and I think it must be—then this reaction is a strong marker of success for Ten Canoes, both as a piece of entertainment and as an tool of cultural renewal. Another such indication relates to the defunct canoe goose egg hunt, as described by de Heer: "One of the great things at the end of the shoot was that Minygululu had picked out the tree that he was going to make his canoe from the next year, and he'd picked out the route of his journey."
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Palm Pictures
• The Balanda and the Bark Canoes Making-of Documentary
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