The narrator (David Gulpilil) introduces his ancestors, as they walk into the bush on a hunting trip. Minygululu (Peter Minygululu) leads the column, followed by his younger brother Dayindi (Jamie Gulpilil). Djigirr (Peter Djigirr) complains about being at the back of the column, which makes everyone laugh. The men then begin to strip bark from the trees, to make canoes. Summary by Paul Byrnes.
Donald Thomson’s ethnographic images, made in the 1930s, have become a treasured resource for the people of Ramingining, and they were a direct inspiration for the film. Most of the men in this hunting party are related directly to people in Thomson’s photographs. Casting was partly dictated by these kinships. The look of this section is deliberately ethnographic, suggesting an idea of a pure culture in its pristine environment, but Rolf de Heer quickly subverts that, when the men start to joke about farting. David Gulpilil’s opening narration is also playful, closer to folktale than the traditions of anthropology. These techniques shift the ownership of the tale, from external to internal. This is not, in that sense, a story that has been ‘collected’, but a story that is given directly to us. That is part of the film’s appeal – it is an act of great generosity.
A narrator (David Gulpilil) instructs us to pay attention, because he is going to tell us a good story. The story takes place in two periods in the past. In the first story, shot in black-and-white, a young man called Dayindi (Jamie Gulpilil) takes part in his first hunt for goose eggs in the Arafura swamp, in central Arnhem Land. As he learns how to build a bark canoe, his older brother tells him a story. This older man, Minygululu (Peter Minygululu) knows that Dayinidi fancies Minygululu’s young and pretty third wife (Cassandra Malangarri Baker), so the story he tells is about the old laws, and a young man who had no wife.
This second story is set in a much older time, and shot in colour, with most of the parts played by the actors from the first story. In this story, Jamie Gulpilil plays Yeeralparil, who fancies the third wife of the warrior Ridjimiraril (Crusoe Kurddal). When this man’s second wife Nowalingu (Frances Djulibing) disappears, Ridjimiraril suspects a stranger, who has been seen near the camp. By mistake, he spears the stranger, but it’s the wrong man. Ridjimiraril must face the man’s relatives, in a ritual payback. He chooses his brother Yeeralparil to stand beside him for the payback. Ridjimiraril is mortally wounded by the spears. When he dies, the custom is that his brother inherits his wives, but these new responsibilities are more than the young man expects.
Ten Canoes is one of the most astonishing films yet made in Australia, for several reasons. It has an extraordinary beauty, in both black-and-white and colour, that dramatises an Australian landscape few of us have seen, but the film is about human beings in that landscape. This is important because it opens up to non-Aboriginal viewers a sense of the way (some) Indigenous Australians view the land. That land connection is very strong in the film, partly because it’s shot from a fairly subjective viewpoint. We can see for ourselves how close and dependent these people are on their ancestral lands, and the two stories give us a sense of how long they have been living like that.
David Gulpilil’s narration establishes a creation mythology, a way of thinking about birth, but then the film becomes very practical in the problems it dramatises – food, sexuality, family – rather than overtly spiritual. This approach demonstrates the humanity of the characters, rather than their otherness. The film’s frankness about bodily functions, and its humour, become like a gesture of welcome to the viewer – a very generous gesture. Indeed, the humour was one of the most astonishing things about the film for non-Indigenous audiences, who were used to seeing films about black experience only as a series of problems.
Most Australian films – even those by Indigenous filmmakers – have never been able to get beyond ‘problematising’ their subject. Ten Canoes evades it by going into the past, where there were no problems, only people. Both stories take place before white settlement, but the fact that the film shows us hunting practices and cultural beliefs that could be revived with relative ease for the film indicated to audiences that these beliefs and practices were far from dead. At the same time, the revival of memory was part of what was important for the Ramingining people, who took part in the film, judging from some of their comments. For example, ‘I’m doing this for my grandkids and for the next one, generation to generation. They can learn what’s in this film; this movie is gonna remind them about our ancient ancestors’– Frances Djulibing, who played the middle wife.
In fact, the film came about partly as an act of remembering. David Gulpilil, who worked with director Rolf de Heer on The Tracker invited de Heer to visit his home in Arnhem Land. While there, he suggested they should make a film about this place. Gulpilil told him they would need ten canoes. He then showed de Heer a photograph, taken by anthropologist Donald Thomson during the 1930s, showing ten men in canoes on the Arafura Swamp, collecting magpie-goose eggs. The Ramingining community were keen to dramatise this traditional food gathering, but it required skills that had almost died out. Only a few of the senior men knew how to construct bark canoes, so the sequence in the film where they do this is partly an exercise in renewal.
The director of photography, Ian Jones, meticulously creates the look of Donald Thomson’s photographs in the black and white section of the film, and part of the film’s beauty is the way it shifts between colour and monochrome, but with a reversal of their usual meaning – the black-and-white section here is the present. The rich colour is the distant past. The vibrant colour is intended to suggest just how strong that past is in the present in Ramingining culture.
Notes by Paul Byrnes
Ten Canoes is an invitation to non-Indigenous peoples – and Indigenous peoples from other parts of the country – to glimpse the ancient world of the Yolngu through this film, which is a combination of ethnographically inspired narrative, juxtaposed with ancient Indigenous cultural beliefs and traditions.
Ten Canoes successfully creates a space for non-Indigenous peoples to access this story by drawing on common aspects of ‘humanity’. The appeal of Ten Canoes is in the humanising of Indigenous peoples set in a period when Indigenous people have been historically presented as unhuman. It is the way in which the film humanises Indigenous peoples that will be a future subject of contention for film theorists.
There are many dramatic and ideological strands woven throughout this film. The inspiration for the film was taken from anthropologist Donald Thomson’s photograph of the 1930s, and the film pays homage to that photograph throughout its narrative in a number of ways and it contributes to the largely ethnographic feel of the film. One of the two narratives of the film is shot in black-and-white and it is in this narrative strand that the actors are occasionally posed as if for a photograph reminiscent of Thomson’s. The second story is set in a ‘Dreaming’ context – the ancient present – and is a story that is passed on in order to share a moral tale. This story is shot in colour, and allows the audience to distinguish between the two – especially since visually both narrative strands look very similar as it uses the same actors and locations for both.
There are four layers of information in Ten Canoes. First, there is the visual information presented in black-and-white, then colour. Second, there is the Yolngu language. Third, the English subtitles of the Yolngu language, and fourth, David Gulpilil’s English spoken narration. At times, Gulpilil’s narration is telling us what we are seeing on screen, which suggests perhaps self-consciousness on behalf of the filmmaker in a bid to not lose the audience. Ten Canoes is a film that is promoted as an Indigenous film, however there is a strong presence of western language in both dialogue, concepts and how the actors are directed to move (their bodies) within the frame.
The collaboration between filmmaker de Heer and the Ramingining community is one that attempts to tackle the very difficult cultural translation between western concepts and language and Indigenous cultural and storytelling concepts in order to make this film. Ten Canoes is a collaborative work initiated by the people of Ramingining to share their private world with a wider audience in order to sustain their own cultural traditions. The fact that a film has to ‘humanise’ Indigenous people at all is a testimony to the power of historical representations that have initially dehumanised Aboriginal peoples. For a more information on the making of Ten Canoes, see The Balanda and the Bark Canoes.
Secondary notes by Romaine Moreton