Ten Canoes, based on an ancient story from the Yolngu people of Arnhem Land, is just plain staggering. From first frame to last, it has a shimmering beauty, shifting easily between rich colour and luminous black and white, in a landscape that makes you feel humble, but its power goes deeper than that.
Part of the reason that black culture remains so mysterious to white Australia is that we have no place within it, no vantage point. We're shut out, often with that sullen stubbornness that Aboriginal Australia has used for more than 200 years as the final - sometimes the only - form of resistance.
Many white filmmakers have tried to penetrate it, with limited success, but it's rarely seemed totally convincing. Black filmmakers aren't necessarily able to get further inside, especially when the story concerns traditional culture.
The result is that most Australian films about Aboriginal life have a distinctly furrowed brow, whether made by black or white directors. They're always about the "problem" of black Australia, rather than the more basic questions of who people are. Aborigines can never really just "be" in our (white) films; they're always a threat, an accusation, a regret or an ideal. There's not much chance for a real engagement when white guilt runs smack into black reluctance to reveal the private self.
Ten Canoes leaps over all that in a single bound, with unlimited optimism. Rolf de Heer, probably our most adventurous filmmaker, has been through the guilt and accusation with The Tracker, a brooding and violent film in which he established a strong relationship with actor David Gulpilil. Ten Canoes is de Heer's attempt to get closer to traditional culture, and make a film that's a real collaboration, based on respect. I don't know what it took to achieve, but there's never been an Australian film quite like it. It's as if the people of Ramingining decided to give us all a gift, by letting us inside. We get a vantage point and the impact is extraordinary.
The idea came from Gulpilil. De Heer has said that they had not yet decided what story to tell when Gulpilil told him: "We need 10 canoes." He then showed de Heer a photograph from legendary anthropologist Donald Thomson's 1936-37 expedition to eastern Arnhem Land, depicting a group of 10 men in canoes hunting for goose eggs in a swamp. De Heer says he took one look at the photo and agreed - they would need 10 canoes. --smh.com
Anthropology and entertainment are marvelously married in Rolf de Heer's "Ten Canoes." The first feature in an Australian Aboriginal language feels authentic to the core as it tells a cautionary tale set 1,000 years ago. Sticking closely to the convoluted patterns of Aboriginal oral history, pic is rendered accessible by the English narration of a storyteller who jovially assumes the role of cultural tour guide. World preemed at the Adelaide Arts Festival, "Ten Canoes" looks set for a prestige fest passage and wide arthouse exposure. Local release is skedded for June 1.
A venture into the challenging physical and emotional environments that have become de Heer's trademark, "Ten Canoes" reps another distinctive outing for the helmer of "The Quiet Room" (1995), "Dance Me to My Song" (1998) and "Alexandra's Project" (2003). For this multilayered morality play, de Heer has collaborated with the Ramingining Aboriginal community with the goal of representing a spoken art form dating back long before the continent's recorded history.
In several respects, pic is similar to the Canadian Inuit feature, "Atanarjuat the Fast Runner" (2003), another first-of-its-kind native pic.
Over glorious aerial shots of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, an eloquent narration defines the deep spiritual connection between the land and its inhabitants. Promising "a story like you've never seen before," the offscreen Storyteller (Aussie screen favorite David Gulpilil, billed here as David Gulpilil Ridjimiraril Dalaithngu) intones the staple "once upon a time in a land far, far away," then chuckles and says, "I'm only joking." Funny ploy allows auds to click into a different groove of tale-telling.
Framing device shot in B&W -- inspired by photographs of anthropologist Donald Thomson in the mid-1930s -- is a canoe-building expedition led by old Minygululu (Peter Minygululu). Minygululu is aware that Dayindi (Jamie Dayindi Gulpilil Dalaithngu, son of David Gulpilil) has designs on the youngest of Minygululu's three wives and decides to set the youngster straight.
Action switches to color as the old man recalls a tale about warrior Ridjimiraril (Crusoe Kurddal), whose younger brother, Yeeralparil (also Jamie Dayindi Gulpilil Dalaithngu), desired one of Ridjimiraril's wives.
This story is just the tip of a large catalog of backstories, sidestories, detours and digressions, all fleshed out to make the lesson clear.
While respect and understanding are uppermost, there's nothing precious about "Ten Canoes." Delightful humor includes various wives giving verbal stick to lazy husbands, the men joking about sexual performance, and a charming running gag about roly-poly elder Birrinbirrin (Richard Birrinbirrin) and his passion for honey.
On-screen cast members are all first-timers. They perform wonderfully with little or no clothing (and zero self-consciousness) under de Heer and his indigenous co-director, Peter Djiggir.
Gorgeous widescreen lensing by Ian Jones in croc-infested wetlands exudes the other-worldly aura of a Werner Herzog pic without any hint of travelogue. Rest of tech package is first class. --Variety.com