Recommended ReadsNovember 23rd, 2021
10 canoes, one epic yarn
I recently watched a film called Ten Canoes, inspired by anthropologist Donald Thomson’s book of the same title published in the 1930s. In the film, an Aboriginal Elder and one of the traditional owners of Northern Australia’s Arafura wetlands, Minygululu, realises his younger brother is pining after one of his three wives. To teach his brother a lesson in local law, Minygululu recounts the story of their ten ancestors, and in it, weaves a tale of forbidden love, responsibility, and patience.
Directors Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigirr capture a fascinating reenactment of how a family’s ancestors used to hunt for magpie goose eggs on hand-made canoes. They also capture something a little less tangible: the feeling of pride.
The film has won a slew of awards. Well deserved, not only for its beautiful shots and masterful mix of black and white, and colour imagery, but for its ability to resurrect. In making the film, cast members, who hailed from local Ramingining and Maningrida communities, had to relearn skills that were almost lost to time. What I saw when I watched was a proud group of people not only reclaiming their culture, but showing it off with honour. It’s a sort of cinematic F-you to the ‘balanda’ or white man, who tried their darndest to steal this community’s culture out from under them.
The narrator, a Yolngu man David Gulpilil, projects a playfulness and lightness that kept me enthralled in a dreamy state, with a perma-smile plastered on my face throughout the one and half hour yarn.
Although filmmaker De Heer did not escape without criticism for being a white Australian telling an Indigenous story, it’s fantastic to see a film shot entirely in Indigenous language.
Criticism of the film may be valid. But what I was struck most by was the joy inherent in the telling. I keep thinking about a scene towards the end that showed protagonist Ridjimiraril performing his own death dance. As he cocked his elbows out from his body and jumped rhythmically from side to side, I was struck by how beautiful the practice was.
There’s also an equally fascinating documentary that accompanies Ten Canoes. It depicts the film’s making and how it almost never came to be; riddled with casting woes, crocodile infested waters and shoot delays as it was. Both feature film and documentary are highly worthwhile watching.