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Ten Canoes

Ten Canoes
Palm Pictures
2006 / Color and B&W / 1:78 anamorphic widescreen / 92 min. / Street Date September 25, 2007 / 24.99
Starring Jamie Gulpilil, Crusoe Kurddall, Richard Birrinbirrin, Frances Djulibing, David Gulpilil
Cinematography Ian Jones
Production Design Beverly Freeman
Film Editor Tania Nehme
Written by Rolf de Heer
Produced by Rolf de Heer, Julie Ryan
Directed by Rolf de Heer, Peter Djigirr

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Ten Canoes is an exacting recreation of Aboriginal life before the coming of the white man, enacted by real Aborigines interested in reviving awareness of their cultural roots. In an interview, co-director and actor Peter Djigirr says that if his people forget who they are, nothing of their world will remain and the white man ("The Balanda") will have won. The simple, earthy story makes amusing use of tribal storytelling traditions. A young tribesman questions part of his culture, and an older man helps him out by telling a tale that at first seems to have nothing to do with the young man's question. But by the time the tale is finished, days later, it all makes sense.

An lengthy extra documentary about the filming of Ten Canoes is at least as fascinating as the film itself, which makes Palm Pictures' DVD desirable even for those who have seen the movie theatrically.


On a goose and goose egg hunt with nine other tribesmen, Young Yeeralparil (Jamie Gulpilil) expresses dissatisfaction with the rule that he can have no wives while the older men have more than one. The old man of the group tells a long story of days gone by. Thanks to complicated tribal laws, a young warrior named Dayindi also has no wives. His older brother Ridjimiraril (Crusoe Kurddal) has three; just about the only way Dayindi will ever have a woman of his own is if Ridjimariril dies and he inherits them. The middle wife disappears and various tribesmen wonder if she just wandered off or was kidnapped. They begin to suspect a stranger from another tribe, who visits once, cautiously. Old Birrinbirrin (Richard Birrinbirrin) turns his one-track mind from honey long enough to report the stranger's return, and Ridjimararil rashly kills the intruder before talking to him. The intruder turns out to be the wrong stranger, and his tribesmen come demanding repayment in blood. To avoid warfare, Ridjimiraril must let a line of enemy tribesmen throw spears at him. As the men file out to participate in the ritual, the remaining two wives weep that Ridjimiraril might be killed. Dayindi makes a gesture of solidarity to his older brother, volunteering to dodge spears by his side. After all, Dayindi says, only one man will be hit. If it means having no wives for the rest of his life, he might as well be killed!

Ten Canoes is an enormously entertaining movie about the storytelling tradition, and not a boring true-life anthropological re-creation. As the tribesmen glide across the swamps in their tree-bark canoes, well-known Australian actor David Gulpilil (Walkabout, Until the End of the World) narrates slowly, settling us into the different pace of a different culture. The story inter-cuts between two time frames. In B&W, the hunting party listens while the old man tells a story of earlier times, which appears in color. The good Dayindi must bunk with the other unmarried men. His older brother Ridjimiraril has three wives, the youngest of which has caught Dayindi's eye. In the open tribal society secrets are impossible, starting with the fact that nobody wears clothing. Everyone's true nature is out in the open, and nobody defies the tribal laws. Old Birrinbirrin's sweet tooth has him conning children to get honey for him. He complains that he can't climb trees, but his own wives refuse to help. The disappearance of Ridjimiraril's second wife Nowalingu (Frances Djulibing) shakes up the tribe and almost brings them to the brink of war. Was Nowalingu murdered? Kidnapped? Did a crocodile eat her?

While all this is going on, we see how the men gather goose eggs and use their spears to hunt game; they strip the bark from tall trees to make hunting canoes. We see Dayindi's resentment at not having a woman of his own. At the end he gets his wish in the worst way possible, when tribal law grants him three wives at once. He goes to the beautiful younger wife, but is immediately corralled by the older, first wives. Dayindi hasn't really understood the marriage business: he hasn't gained three wives, three women now own him.

The story is humorous and insightful. The emotions of these people are dealt with out in the open, and they rely on complicated rules to keep their society in order. When more abstract issues threaten, the tribe's sorcerer paints himself with clay to commune with spirits. The women enforce a stern pecking order within the tribe, but even the tiny kids have the right to talk back to Granpa. The movie is also frank about common body functions, as one might expect with naked people that live in the woods.

Director Rolf de Heer's simple camera angles alternate between beautiful images of man in nature and expressive character studies. He's sensitive to the landscape and the Aboriginals' emotions. He doesn't need to hype the action to make Ten Canoes into a mini-epic. Movies like The Last Wave and even The Right Stuff distort the image of Australian Aboriginals, making them into quasi-magical primitives possessing supernatural powers. Ten Canoes touches on the tribe's spiritual strength without telling ghost stories.

Palm Pictures' DVD of Ten Canoes offers this unique picture in a handsome enhanced transfer with excellent color and sound. A major extra, The Balanda and the Bark Canoes is a fascinating making-of document that shows the tough problems faced by director Rolf de Heer. Getting cooperation from the people of Ramingining was difficult, because they've maintained many of their old cultural attitudes. Despite the help co-director Peter Djigirr, communication breaks down as de Heer inadvertently treads on sensitive issues. The men don't mind being naked for the film but their culture doesn't acknowledge a distinction between fact and fiction. History is either true stories in the storytelling tradition, or lies. Therefore, if Ridjimiraril is to have three wives, the 'actors' insist that the wives actually be women that by Aboriginal law would qualify to marry him. De Heer has the benefit of hundreds of photos taken by an anthropologist named Thomson, who lived with the Aboriginals in 1930. Thomson's research is the only record of many tribal traditions and the men use his photos and sketches to re-learn old skills, like making a boat.

Both Rolf De Heer and Peter Djigirr appear in separate interviews, and a computerized map scans over Arnhem Land, the area of Australia where the Ramingining people live. Some of Thomson's old photos are compared with their re-creations in the film. A DVD-Rom study guide and a clever trailer are included as well.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Ten Canoes rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: The Balanda and the Bark Canoes, 55 min. making-of film; interviews with Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigirr, photo gallery, aerial computer map, trailer, DVD-Rom study guide
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 1, 2007

Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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