The Balanda and the Bark Canoes: Swamp canoes

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

Rolf de Heer oversees the construction of swamp canoes that will be used in the film Ten Canoes (2006). 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 shows Indigenous people from the Ramingining region in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory rediscovering the old ways of making bark canoes. The immense significance of this rediscovery to the people is explained by Rolf de Heer in voice-over. To make the canoe, which is to be used in de Heer’s film Ten Canoes, men cut bark, and then soak and heat it, shaping it and securing the bow. Black-and-white photographs from 1937, including the photograph that was the inspiration for Ten Canoes, are shown. A younger man asks how to make canoes.

Educational value points

  • This clip shows the rediscovery by Yolngu men of how to make a swamp canoe. The rediscovery was inspired by a 1930s photograph of Yolngu men in canoes. Yolngu actor David Gulpilil showed the photograph to director Rolf de Heer, and suggested it as the key idea for a film. The swamp canoe is a specialised technology developed by the Yolngu people to travel and hunt in the wetlands of the Arafura Swamp. It had fallen out of use until the making of Ten Canoes.
  • The technique of canoe making seen in the clip uses materials available in the immediate environment. To make a canoe, a sheet of bark – up to 4 m long and 1 m wide – is cut from each selected tree in a single piece. The barks are soaked in a creek overnight, thrown onto a fire to soften them, then bent into shape. One end is sewn using string made from a shrub. Then the bark is put back onto the fire to soften the other end.
  • Although swamp canoes had not been made for decades, the photograph shown in the clip prompted the memories of the older men, enabling them to recover their expertise. The photograph was one of thousands taken by anthropologist Donald Thomson (1901–70) during his fieldwork in Arnhem Land documenting Yolngu life in 1935–37. The photographs provide a link with the past and cultural traditions, and are highly valued by the community.
  • The way that the rediscovery of old ways can reinvigorate Indigenous cultures is suggested in the final moments in the clip. Dawu, a young man, asks one of the Elders if he can learn about making canoes and in so doing he shows his respect for their skills. Cultures have a greater chance of survival when they are valued by succeeding generations who learn the ‘old ways’ and pass their knowledge on.
  • Peter Djigirr, an Elder from Ramingining, features strongly in the clip. He is shown supervising all aspects of the construction of the canoe. He took a significant leadership role during the collaborative process between the Yolngu people and the Ten Canoes filmmakers. Director Rolf de Heer (1951–) came to realise that Djigirr was effectively the co-director and gave him formal credit for this role.
  • The clip explains the way the Yolngu Elders saw the film as a way of preserving and passing on their languages and knowledge of the old ways. Following the success of the film, at the instigation of the Yolngu people, a website called Twelve Canoes was developed to reach an even wider audience.

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