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Wow. If your main prior experience of Aboriginal film is with black and white documentary footage from the 50s and 60s or with the many films examining the impact of white culture on black society and the often tragic results of their interplay, this will turn it on its head. The movies worships nature and the land in the same way Aboriginal culture views the land not as backdrop or something to be exploited, but as almost human itself. Without qualification or embellishment, the camera marvels at the beauty of the landscape, and we do too. The story is set many generations ago, but there is no sense of time; it could be yesterday, or 40,000 years ago. Time hasn't changed the way of life of the people we are introduced to nor the lessons the young must learn to reach maturity, as our hero Yeeralpiril discovers. David Gulpilil's narration is so masterful it suggests he has another twenty stories up his sleeve just as beguiling to tell you as this one. Film-making like this is a rare experience. Let there be more.
This is a truly unique cinema experience - story-telling at its finest.
The film documents Aboriginal culture, history and humor in a way that
I have never seen on-screen before.
The voice-over narration of David Gulpilil is excellent. The cinematography is awesome. The film oozes with authenticity and was filmed on location in very remote areas of the Northern Territory of Australia.
It's tragic that this culture should be so remote and foreign to Australians (what to speak of others elsewhere in the world).
This film is full of the dignity of this honorable race of people who have so much to be proud of.
For the Australian Aborigines who are said to date back 65,000 years,
the ancestor spirits are still alive. They are a part of an Aborigine's
"dreaming" and come to life in the stories indigenous Australians have
told through the ages. Playfully narrated by Australian icon David
Gulpilil, Ten Canoes, directed by Rolf de Heer (The Tracker) and Peter
Djigirr, tells a dreaming story that acts as a lesson for a young man
in the tribe who feels that the youngest wife of his older brother
should be his. The story has elements of kidnapping, sorcery, and
revenge but is mostly about values: how a community living in a natural
environment before the coming of the White man developed laws and
systems to guide its people. The cast consists of indigenous residents
of the Arafura region and many of the visuals recreate the photographs
of Donald Thompson, a Melbourne anthropology professor who spent time
in the 1930s with the Yolngu people of the Arafura Swamp.
Set a thousand years ago in central Arnhem Land near the Arafura Swamp in northern Australia, east of Darwin, a group of Ganalbingu tribesmen embark on a hunt for magpie geese, a wild bird used to sustain the tribe. To navigate the crocodile-infested swamp, elder Minygululu (Peter Minygululu) leads the tribe in building canoes made out of bark. When he discovers that Dayindi (played by Gulpilil's son, Jamie) has a crush on his third wife, he tells him a story set in a mythical time after the great flood that explains how his people developed laws to govern their behavior, the same laws used by the tribes today. To distinguish between the past and the "present", De Heer uses muted color to show the ancient landscape and black and white for the more modern story.
In the beginning, Ridjimiraril (Crusoe Kurddal) lives with his three wives, Banalandju, Nowalingu (Frances Djulibing), and Munandjarra in a camp with others, including Birrinbirrin (Richard Birrinbirrin), an overweight elder whose sole pleasure in life is to eat honey. Ridjimiraril's younger brother, Yeeralparil (Jamie), who lives in the single men's camp, fancies the beautiful Munandjarra and spends much time stealing visits to the other camp, hoping to catch a glimpse of her. When a stranger approaches without warning, the men are frightened, especially when he tells them that he wants to trade objects of magic.
The local sorcerer warns the men of danger but life proceeds normally until the jealous Nowalingu disappears after a fight with Banalandju. Though the others believe that she simply ran away, Ridjimiraril is convinced that she was abducted by the stranger and receives confirmation for his fear when an old uncle appears and says that he saw his wife in a camp with the stranger. The men are galvanized into action and a war party is prepared. Through myth and illuminating visuals, Ten Canoes generates a greater awareness and understanding of indigenous Australian culture and acts as an impressive counterweight to the argument that Aborigines should give up their past and join the modern world. That the film is entertaining and deeply moving as well as informative is a very welcome bonus indeed.
The English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who lived to be 92 and spent
much of his life in the aristocratic splendour of Hardwick Hall,
Derbyshire, famously opined that the life of primitive man was
"solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short". Jacques Rousseau, on the
other hand, in direct contradiction of Christian theology, was
convinced that man had been born good, and that primitive man was
indeed the "noble savage".
Rolf de Heer, a maker of small, quirky and interesting films ("Bad Boy Bubby", "The Old Man Who Read Love Stories", "The Tracker"), probably doesn't subscribe to either notion. In this exquisitely photographed tale from the mythical past he lets the aboriginals of the Arafura wetlands, Arnhem Land, tell their own story. Apart from David Gulpilil, who provides a gentle, teasing voice-over, and his son Jamie, all the parts are played by non-professional actors from the district. Apart from the voice-over, all the dialogue is in the local aboriginal language (don't worry, there are sub-titles).
While on a goose egg hunting trip, Older Brother , who has noticed his younger brother's interest in one of his wives, tells Younger Brother a story from a much earlier time, of another younger brother who yearned after his older brother's wife. Without giving the story away, the moral is "be careful about what you wish for, you might get it", but much happens in between. It becomes evident that these "savages", as well as possessing a robust sense of humor, have a legal system that minimizes the damage done by crimes. It seems that neighboring tribes, whose language our tribe scarcely understands, will play by the same rules. Once honour is satisfied, the matter is at an end. The story gives us an insight as to how aboriginal society remained stable for so long prior to contact with Europeans.
It is hard to comment on the acting, other than to say the characters seem completely authentic. The tribe's sorcerer, for instance, likes to choose a bone to wear in his nose to suit his mood or the occasion, just as your local GP might like to select a bow tie before opening his surgery. But I have to mention Crusoe Kusddal as Ridjimiraril, the older brother in the myth. His language means little to us, but his expression everything.
The scenes on the goose-hunt, which book-end the main story, are in black and white, a tribute to earlier photographers in Arnhem Land, but most of the film is in colour, which does full justice to the landscape. This is no Garden of Eden the necessity to build tree platforms while camping in the swamp is evidence of that (though we see no actual crocodiles). Yet the aborigines manage to live within the environment without despoiling it or each other. Theirs is a patriarchal society but women are protected by the rules as well as by their menfolk. The movie is a fascinating glimpse into the culture, told in a disarmingly humorous fashion, by the people themselves. One should not be too misty-eyed about this the cast probably watch "The Simpsons" via satellite at home but they have given us both a droll tale and some food for thought.
An outstanding movie. Storytelling at its finest. Ten canoes is a story within a story and delves into a world that people rarely no about. Away from the clichéd Aboriginal art and instruments - we are propelled to live by proxy with two generations and experience their world, their humour. This was one of two most outstanding movies at this year's Cannes film festival. The only shame was that it was not in the official competition section but in the un certain regard. /however, showing great wisdom, the jury did realise and rightly so award for the first time ever a special jury prize to Ten Canoes. Written, shot and directed with a deft touch. Sheer class.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
SPOILERS THROUGHOUT. I saw 'Ten Canoes' at Cannes, and I was absolutely
awestruck. Even now, almost precisely a year later, I've difficulty
writing about this film without being emotionally overcome. Yes, damn
it, the movie's that good, that wonderful, that miraculous.
I feel a deep attachment to this film and its subject matter. As you might guess from my email address -- Borroloola (an aboriginal settlement in the Northern Territory) -- I spent several of my formative years in Australia's outback, notably the Red Centre, Arunta and the Northern Territory, not far from where 'Ten Canoes' was filmed. I've been privileged to live with, or nearby to, members of several of the indigenous tribes from that part of Australia. The people in 'Ten Canoes' (both the actors and the roles they portray) are of the Yolngu and Gunwinggu tribes, whereas most of my own friendships in that region are with members of the Nunggubuyu and Gunbalanya groups. All of these tribes are centred in the Arnhem Land region, so I recognised much of the land (and language) in this wonderful movie.
I was surprised that this film's English title has a number in it, because the Arnhem Land natives did not use number words until recently. They quantify an object by naming it as many times as needed. For instance, the Nunggubuyu word for 'day' is 'jami', so 'three days' would be 'jami jami jami'. This system works well enough for quantities of as many as five (a hand's worth): for more than five of anything, they use a word for 'many'.
It turns out that the title 'Ten Canoes' is largely irrelevant and mostly symbolic. Ten Yolngu warriors are on an expedition to steal goose eggs from their nests (insert 'poached eggs' joke here). To travel by water, the warriors must construct one canoe for each man. But the title refers to the ten men themselves, or their physical bodies: vessels (canoes) in which their souls travel the (river) current of existence. (The press kit at Cannes said that this film's title was inspired by a photograph ... yet that photo is never seen in this film. My own explanation fits the circumstances just as well.)
The film's narration by David Gulpilil is perfect. He speaks his lines in an accent containing just enough Strine to link the action to modern Australia without evoking Mick Dundee or any Ocker stereotypes.
Several supernatural events occur during this film, but they're conveyed in native Australian terms, not Hollywood clichés ... so, don't expect any CGI f/x mucking up this wonderful story. The beautiful photography is entirely at the service of native Australian story-telling techniques. Even the subtle manipulation of colour, which could have been just one more gimmick, adds a dimension to the narrative.
The aboriginal actors, with their distinctive Dravidian facial structures, photograph astonishingly. Unfortunately for the film, one or two of them have modern dentition, spoiling the effect that we're witnessing events occurring thousands of years before white men's arrival in Australia. The main Gunwinggu character has a moustache just a bit too neatly trimmed. More favourably, I was delighted by a scene which shows (accurately) how these ancient men, who have no metal, are able to shave their beards.
Very credibly, their preoccupations are much as we might expect: flatulence, sex, physical urges.
Because I've done continuity work on several films, I compulsively check every movie I view (and its soundtrack) for continuity errors or anachronisms. As I watched and enjoyed 'Ten Canoes' and the beautiful footage of Arnhem Land flora and fauna, I kept checking for jet contrails, rabbit fences, bird calls by imported species, or any other signs of modern life in this movie's depiction of dawntime Australia. The flawless teeth of a couple of the actors were the only flaws in this film.
I wept with joy and delight at the beauty and narrative power of this unique and precious film. A rating of 10 out of 10 isn't good enough, but it'll have to do. If you have any passion at all for anything outside the usual Hollywood or Bollywood clichés, you must see 'Ten Canoes'.
On a recent visit to Melbourne, I came across a poster for the movie
Ten Canoes. It described a film about Australian Aborigines and claimed
to portray them authentically. The film sets a new standard for
cross-cultural understanding. Ever since Whale Rider I have been
entranced by movies about aboriginal culture. This film extends the
genre onto a higher plane.
The narrator tells a story about men hunting for goose eggs in canoes while one tells a story from the ancient times. Both stories are woven exquisitely together to form a dream-like telling. The cinematography captures the actual remote locations the tribe inhabits. The characters are portrayed as authentically as can be, probably because they are. (At least, it seemed that way to a white guy from Boston.) I don't know if any are actual actors.
If you have interest in any aboriginal culture or anything Australian, you should see this movie. If you love great story telling, you must see it.
I encourage you to also read the other comments on this site for TEN CANOES as each also will add to the clear understanding of this astonishing Australian film by master film maker Rolf DeHeer. He is a Dutch immigrant to Australia whose unique look at this country has now produced a superb library of films each different, that contribute to a fascinating movie spectrum of impressions of Australian life. TEN CANOES is an Aboriginal parable set possibly ten thousand years ago. It has hilarious casual dialog and familiar situations depicting tribal family and community life that humanizes this people in a heightened way so accessible to audiences of 2007. At this time in a new century we are now blessed with a sequence of Australian aboriginal themed films I encourage you to find and view in their production order: JEDDA directed by Charles Chauvel in 1956, WALKABOUT d: Nicolas Roeg in 1970, STORM BOY in 1976, THE LAST WAVE d: Peter Weir in 1977, RABBIT PROOF FENCE d; Phil Noyce in 2003, THE TRACKER d Roldf De Heer, and now TEN CANOES. Incredibly and as a bonus celebrated Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil features in all of them except Jedda... and as a bonus in theme, his son Jamie is the lead actor in TEN CANOES with David narrating. TEN CANOES will take you to a reality and a community unlike anything ever depicted in any film ever. As alike those above, it is presented and magnificently filmed in cinemascope differently to any Australian (or 'primitive') feature I have ever had the fascinating engrossing pleasure of seeing. Just to study the timeless faces alone is a peep into history and often delivered with very funny and genuinely suspenseful and heartwarming results. De Heer is now a film maker par excellence now finally getting major recognition in this country with a broad range of different and arresting films unlike any other film maker I can name. just for starters, check out the comments for BAD BOY BUBBY, ALEXANDRA'S PROJECT, THE QUIET ROOM, alone for a jaw dropping range of themes. Even if you see TEN CANOES and find the journey into the Australian stone age initially difficult, you will be astonished at the visuals presented and in awe of the fact this was ever captured on film with such humor and accessible humanities.
Ten canoes is a remarkable film which I am sure will take its place amongst the classics in history of movie-making. As usual he allows the subject(s) to speak for itself and the result is marvellous. The audience I saw it with did not seem to want leave at the and no one moved or made a sound until the end of the credits. i don't know how to interpret this reaction. In my own case I had a sense of hoping for more which may have been due to the nature of th final 5 minutes during which there was a sort of false ending with some self effacing humour. The participants were excellent and their 'naturalistic acting was outstanding. The music and editing contributed to the elegiacs quality of the movie. Rolf de Heer never disappoints!
This story begins with an aerial flyover of Arnhem Land in northern
Austalia. A narrator comes on saying that he is going to tell a story,
his story. His story starts with the recounting of a tale about his
ancestors of a few generations back who are making canoes to traverse a
crocodile-filled swamp in search of goose eggs. Within that tale a wise
older man is telling another, somewhat parallel, tale to his younger
brother dating back many generations to "the ancients." In a clever
plotting device the ancestor's tale is shown in black and white while
the ancient's tale is shown in color. This technique has the dual
effect of allowing director Rolf de Heer to duplicate scenes from black
and white photographs taken in the area by an anthropologist in the
1930s (photographs that motivated the making of this film), as well as
helping the viewer keep the stories straight.
The cast consists of a few dozen modern day aboriginals playing the parts in the two stories. They try to capture the reality of the times portrayed, and you can believe that this was the way it could have been thousands of years ago for a tribe of early humans. The earlier Astralians have their own customs and language and the cast speaks in their native language, with English subtitles. I kept thinking of how the basic emotions driving the stories are still with us--fear, jealousy, lust, love, trust, distrust, pride, humor, courage, loyalty, honor. The culture presented is indeed not mine, but it is perfectly understandable. Sorcerers keep the tribe stirred up and mystified with special knowledge of "magic," just as modern religions do (with equal effectiveness). There are laws that must be obeyed, even if unwritten. The young men relish showing prowess in hunting and war making. A creator is deemed the prime mover. Marital relationships are not always harmonious, especially if polygamous. And so on.
It appears that no matter how it manifests itself a culture will wrap itself around basic human emotions and desires. It would not be a stretch to recast these stories in a modern setting.
The photography of the landscape is beautiful and sensuous; it contributes greatly to the stories by showing what an intimate relationship early peoples had with the land and its fauna.
This movie helps us better appreciate where we came from and what we are.
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