Rolf de Heer’s charming Ten Canoes, set among the Yolngu community and billed as the first feature in the Aboriginal language, starts as it means to go on, humorously deflating myths and conventions. Over the magnificent opening views of Arnhem Land in Northern Australia the jovial narrator is heard saying ‘Once upon a time in a faraway land’, only to stop and add, laughing, ‘I’m only joking’.
Ten Canoes‘ rather wonderful adventure started with the thousands of black and white photographs that were taken by anthropologist Dr Donald Thomson in the mid-1930s. One of them, depicting a group of ten men in their traditional bark canoes on the swamp, caught the eye of director de Heer and Aboriginal performer David Gulpilil – the narrator and co-initiator of the project – striking them as a remarkable image that perfectly encapsulated the lost world of the Yolngu’s past.
Shot in black and white to mirror the Thomson photographs, the framing story follows a group of men on a goose egg hunting expedition a thousand years ago. Respected elder Minygululu is leading the expedition and, aware that his younger brother Dayindi lusts after the youngest of his three wives, proceeds to tell him a cautionary tale set in a distant, mythical past. Shot in colour, this ancient tale of jealousy, murder and sorcery alternates with the quasi-anthropological black and white footage of the Yolngu men making canoes from bark, collecting goose eggs or building platforms in the trees.
As the narrator tells us an anecdote about his ancestors, who themselves are telling an anecdote about their own ancestors, it soon becomes clear that Ten Canoes is about the eternal story of mankind – a repetitive tale of love, lust, jealousy, conflict, food, farts, shit and death. Although it presents itself as a morality tale, the film is anything but, the ending being a joyfully inconclusive illustration of the messiness of human life. In all this it humorously demystifies exotic people from faraway lands or from the distant past. There is no idealisation of the ‘good savage’ or of a paradisiacal past here – a dubious perspective last seen in Terence Malick’s unbelievably bad The Lost World.
This is no white man’s view of indigenous culture but a film that connects past and present, Western audiences and Aboriginal community in a fresh, dynamic way. Not only does Ten Canoes incorporate storytelling elements from both Western and indigenous traditions but the film was also an occasion for the Yolngu people to recreate some of the ancient crafts and skills that had fallen into disuse with the increasing influence of modern technology. By recreating their history, and the history of the encounter between the white anthropologist and their people, the Yolngu make the images he took of them their own, part of a renewed tradition engaged in a vivid dialogue with the modern, Western world.