The Balanda and the Bark Canoes: For the future

The Balanda and the Bark Canoes: For the future
WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that the following program may contain images and/or audio of deceased persons
Access fees

Against a backdrop of images of the Ramingining community, director Rolf de Heer talks about the unexpected problems in casting Ten Canoes (2006). The kinship laws are so complex that the final choice of cast is now in the hands of the community. On the first day of shooting, de Heer talks to his cast. Two of the actors have a laugh about appearing naked on film. Summary by Romaine Moreton.

The Balanda and the Bark Canoes synopsis

This documentary is about the making of Ten Canoes (2006), a feature film partly inspired by the photographs of Donald Thomson from the 1930s.


The Balanda and the Bark Canoes curator's notes

The Balanda and the Bark Canoes is a fascinating look at making a film that must take into account two cultural perspectives, beliefs and storytelling traditions. It is at times very humorous, especially when the explanations of director Rolf de Heer to the actors from Ramingining and Murwangi get lost in translation. What results is often a different understanding by the actors of what de Heer is asking for.

The task undertaken by de Heer in order to make Ten Canoes (2006) is of a very complex nature, with the process and understanding of storytelling completely different between Western and Indigenous cultures. De Heer, in working with the actors, must comply with cultural kinship systems, making sure that their characters in the film are either married to their real life partners or at least could be. It is interesting to see these real world constraints imposed upon a fictional story, which is then shaped by real culture and tradition. In the end, it was the community who cast the film.

The people of Ramingining and Murwangi recreate the canoe-making process from the 1930s photographs of anthropologist Donald Thomson. In a strange twist, it is Thomson who becomes the authority on Yolngu culture and the making of the bark canoes and de Heer, in referring to Thomson’s notes, is elected as an elder with 'great wisdom’.

What comes across clearly in the documentary is that the motivation of the Indigenous peoples is very much to respect and remember their ancestors, as well as to gain respect from Balanda (white) culture. The voice-over narration sometimes seems a little anthropological and paternalistic, but de Heer is essentially present to facilitate a story that the people of Ramingining and Murwangi want to tell through acting. One of the participants declares, 'I will act so my grandfather is remembered’, and this pretty much sums up the motivation for the Indigenous actors, who are taken on a journey of remembering.

The Balanda and the Bark Canoes gives a good background to Ten Canoes (2006, see on this site), and both films represent a meeting of cultures.

In 2008 the Yolngu people of Ramingining produced a website, Twelve Canoes, to share their paintings and stories and as a way of keeping alive their culture.

Notes by Romaine Moreton.


Education notes 

This clip from the documentary The Balanda and the Bark Canoes (2006) shows the process of making the film Ten Canoes (2006). Director Rolf de Heer explains in voice-over the effect of kinship laws on casting and the subsequent delays in filming. The clip shows the landscape near Ramingining in Arnhem Land and the camp that housed cast and crew. Four-wheel-drive vehicles head to the shooting location. De Heer explains how a scene is to be done to some of the cast. The actors’ joke about being shown naked in the film is translated in English subtitles.

Educational value points

  • In the clip, director Rolf de Heer describes some of the challenges he faced in making Ten Canoes in collaboration with the Yolngu people of Ramingining. De Heer found it difficult to fully understand the complexities of the culture, which had implications for casting, script development and the making of props. The film was a collaborative process – Yolngu people determined story development, selected most of the cast and had editorial veto.
  • The complexity of Yolngu kinship laws meant that de Heer placed casting decisions in the hands of the community. The kinship system determines the relationships between people and defines their obligations and behaviour towards each other and the world around them. The Yolngu community considered it essential that all roles in the film reflect the actual kinship relations of actors playing the parts in order for the story to be considered ‘a real and true story’.
  • The clip shows de Heer’s openness as a filmmaker as he explains the basics of film language to the actors playing the ten canoeists. For most Yolngu people English is a fourth or fifth language. De Heer speaks no Yolngu language, which required him to employ a number of different communication strategies. In the scene in the clip, no written script is used; instead de Heer carefully explains the roles of the characters and how the scene might progress.
  • The Yolngu community’s significant collaboration in the filmmaking process is indicated in the way that the actors listen to de Heer’s direction and then discuss that direction between themselves to decide who will and will not climb a tree to collect bark. The cast’s joking about their required nakedness shows an acute awareness of the nature of film – Peter Djigirr jokes that ‘the camera will show it as it is’.
  • The filming location seen in the clip is on the edge of the Arafura Swamp in north-eastern Arnhem Land and is home to the Ramingining community of the Yolngu people. The camp seen here was at Murwangi, an old cattle station on the edge of the Swamp about 50 km south of Ramingining.
  • The use of subtitles gives the viewer an intimate sense of the interactions and humour of the actors as they negotiate their actions in a scene. There is a tangible change in mood when they speak in their own language, which allows their warmth and humour to come through. The film was the first feature film to be shot entirely in Aboriginal languages, predominantly Ganalbingu – one of many local languages.

Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia.


Production company:
Fandango Australia
Rolf de Heer, Julie Ryan
Executive producer:
Sue Murray
Molly Reynolds, Tania Nehme, Rolf de Heer
Molly Reynolds, Tania Nehme, Rolf de Heer