Ten Canoes: Two brothers face payback

Ten Canoes: Two brothers face payback
WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are advised that the following program may contain images and/or audio of deceased persons
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As the men prepare for a big lunch of magpie-geese, cooked in the canoes on the swamp, the narrator returns to the climax of the old story. Ridjimiraril (Crusoe Kurddal) and his brother Yeeralparil (Jamie Gulpilil) must stand and face the spears of another clan, in payback for Ridjimiraril’s crime. Summary by Paul Byrnes.

This is one of the only parts of the film in which Rolf de Heer abandons the matter-of-fact realism he has used throughout. We hear a didgeridoo and the two men become opaque, like ghosts, as they dance to avoid the spears. He also uses slow motion, perhaps to contrast the speed of the spears, in the superb shot of the line of men throwing spears. Before and after this sequence, we get the men in the swamp, in black-and-white scenes of great tranquillity. The narrator decides to hurry the story along, because he knows we are impatient. The storytelling in the film has many levels, not just in time, but in the sophisticated way it addresses the audience.

Ten Canoes Synopsis

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 Curator's notes

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

Secondary curator's notes

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

Education notes

This clip shows canoeists returning to camp after hunting for goose eggs. The narrator (David Gulpilil) resumes the parallel story of Ridjimiraril (Crusoe Kurddal), a Dreaming story set in the ancient present. Ridjimiraril and Yeeralparil (James Gulpilil) face payback from a neighbouring tribe and are shown dancing to avoid a volley of spears until Ridjimiraril is wounded. The clip cuts to the canoeists paddling downstream to return home. The ‘present’ is in black and white and the past is in colour. The canoeists speak in their Indigenous language and the clip is subtitled.

Educational value points

  • Ten Canoes is the first feature-length film made in Australian Indigenous languages. There are about 40 language groups in north-east Arnhem Land, and most Indigenous people in the region are multilingual. Most of the canoeists in the film are Ganalbingu speakers but Minygululu (Peter Minygululu) speaks Mandalpuyngu. A version of Ten Canoes was produced with a narration in the Mandalpuyngu language.
  • In a reversal of film convention, director Rolf de Heer depicts the past in colour, while the ‘present’, a time just prior to European contact, is in black and white. This black-and-white depiction was influenced by photographs taken by anthropologist Donald Thomson during a 1936–37 expedition to eastern Arnhem Land, while the colour sections suggest the importance of the past for Yolngu people. This device also helps to differentiate the two stories.
  • The spearing of Ridjimiraril is an example of a ritual known as 'makarrata’, which is a way to restore harmony between groups or individuals in dispute. The narrator acknowledges this when he says the other tribe were satisfied once the spearing had taken place. The form the makarrata takes is decided following careful negotiations between the Elders of the affected groups or tribes. The person facing makarrata can select a partner to join him in the ritual.
  • Traditional law requires that punishments are public and follow specific guidelines. Different weapons are used for different violations, and particular rituals are associated with each. For example, if a spear is used the person must approach from the front and inflict a wound in the leg or torso. However, one of the most severe punishments is banishment. In these and other ways Indigenous communities maintain social control and compliance with the law.
  • In Indigenous communities Elders use Dreaming stories to pass on to younger generations knowledge about the law that guides the community. Thus Minygululu tells his younger brother Dayindi a Dreaming story to warn him of the dangers of inappropriate love. In using a narrator, Elder David Gulpilil, to recount Minygululu’s telling of the story, the film replicates this form of instruction, becoming another medium through which to convey this knowledge.
  • In Ten Canoes the seamless interweaving of the various narrative strands is accomplished with the aid of the narrator, but also by the parallels between the two stories. These are stressed by having James Gulpilil play Yeeralparil and Dayindi, who both covet the third wife of their respective brothers. In using the same actors to play their corresponding characters in both time periods the film reinforces a sense of connection between the past and the present.
  • The Yolngu Elders saw Ten Canoes as a way of preserving and passing on their languages. At the time of European colonisation more than 700 different Indigenous languages and dialects were spoken in Australia, however, until the 1960s Indigenous people on missions were often discouraged or forbidden from speaking their own languages. A census in 1996 showed that 13 per cent of the Indigenous population spoke an Indigenous language or creole at home.
  • Yolngu Elder David Gulpilil, who narrates Ten Canoes, collaborated with director Rolf de Heer in developing the film. Gulpilil, who received an Australian Film Institute (AFI) award for Best Actor for his role in de Heer’s The Tracker (2002), was 15 years old when cast in Walkabout (1971), the film that launched his career. His other films include Storm Boy (1976), The Last Wave (1977), Crocodile Dundee (1986) and Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002).
  • Rolf de Heer, a director with a reputation for tackling ambitious and experimental film projects, was approached by David Gulpilil to make a film about his people while the two were working on The Tracker (2002). Ten Canoes, which de Heer co-directed with Peter Djigirr, scooped the 2006 AFI Awards, including those for best direction, best original screenplay and best cinematography. It has won numerous other awards both in Australia and overseas.

Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia

Production company:
Fandango Australia, Vertigo Productions
Julie Ryan, Rolf de Heer
Executive Producers :
Sue Murray, Domenico Procacci, Bryce Menzies
Rolf de Heer
Peter Djigirr
Rolf de Heer
Commissioning editor, SBSi:
Miranda Dear
Richard Birrinbirrin, Sonia Djarrabalminym, Jennifer, Djenana, Frances Djulibing (AKA Frances Daingangan), Kathy Gonun, Philip Gudthaykudthay, David Gulpilil, Jamie Gulpilil, Crusoe Kurddal, Cassandra Malangarri Baker, Peter Minygululu
Written in consultation with the people of Ramingining. Produced with the assistance of SBS Television and Online Australia.

A group of hunters cook a big meal of magpie-geese in the canoes on the swamp. Whilst they are cooking a few other men approach in canoes. This section of the clip is in black-and-white, signifying that the story takes place in the more recent time period. The dialogue is subtitled.
Hunter 1 My goose got away.
Hunter 2 Got all the eggs though.
Narrator The goose-egg hunters come together to eat.
Hunter 1 Is the fire going yet?
Hunter 2 Almost.
Hunter 1 I could eat a whole goose.
Hunter 3 When can we cook?
Dayindi (rowing) Hey everybody! Are you all here?
Hunter 1 We’re about to start cooking.
Dayindi Is the fire burning?
Hunter 1 Nearly there!
Dayindi I’m looking forward to filling my stomach! I got a goose!
Narrator Dayindi is proud of his hunting. Minygululu will go on with the story when they are eating. We can’t wait that long because it was time for makarrata spears to start flying.

The vision changes to colour, signifying a switch to an older time period. In a clearing a line of men stand with spears at a distance from Ridjimiraril and his brother Yeeralparil. A group of onlookers sit off to the side under some trees. The men with spears begin throwing them at Ridjimiraril and Yeeralparil, who duck and weave to avoid them. A didgeridoo plays.
Narrator Ridjimiraril and Yeeralparil danced like ghosts between the spears. They danced so hard they were nearly invisible. The spears seemed to be passing right through them. The warriors from the other tribe threw their spears until their arms were getting tired. That’s how hard those two brothers were dancing. But Ridjimiraril was not a ghost. His legs were human and one spear too many came flying.
Ridjimiraril falls to the ground. A spear has entered his stomach. The men who are watching rise to their feet. The men from the other tribe dance in triumph.

The vision switches back-to-black. A group of men are paddling in their canoes.
Narrator The goose-egg hunting is nearly over for now. But there is still some of the story left for me to tell you. That one spear too many had hit Ridjimiraril right in his guts. He was injured, alright. But not so bad that he should die. The other tribe – they were satisfied. The law had been followed. Justice had been done.