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Ten Canoes

4.2 out of 5 stars 36 customer reviews

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(Sep 25, 2007)
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Editorial Reviews

Product Description

Bonus Features:
Balanda and the Bark Canoes: The Making of Ten Canoes (12min)
Aerial Map of Arnhem Land
Interview with Peter Djigirr
Interview with Director Rolf de Heer
Photo Gallery: Thomson Photographs Revisited
US Theatrical Trailer
Study Guide (DVD-Rom)


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.

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.

Special Features


Product Details

  • Actors: David Gulpilil, Crusoe Kurddal, Jamie Dayindi Gulpilil Dalaithngu, Richard Birrinbirrin, Peter Minygululu
  • Directors: Rolf de Heer
  • Format: AC-3, Color, Dolby, NTSC, Subtitled, Widescreen
  • Language: English
  • Subtitles: English
  • Region: Region 1 (U.S. and Canada only. Read more about DVD formats.)
  • Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1
  • Number of discs: 1
  • Rated:
    Not Rated
  • Studio: Palm Pictures
  • DVD Release Date: September 25, 2007
  • Run Time: 92 minutes
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (36 customer reviews)
  • ASIN: B000S8CLSS
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #106,586 in Movies & TV (See Top 100 in Movies & TV)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Enrique Torres VINE VOICE on December 21, 2007
Format: DVD
As art house films go, this movie is very good, maybe even exceptional. On the other hand, if you like Hollywood type movies, than you might want to pass. However, even if you are not inclined to the type of movies that don't get the publicity or distribution and are stacked thirty deep at your local movie rental conglomerate four months later, you still might enjoy this movie. Remember the Australian classics The Last Wave - Criterion Collection, Walkabout - Criterion Collection? Well, this will probably someday be considered alongside those movies as great movies from Australia. Coincidently , David Gulpili, who starred in the aforementioned movies, narrates , often times tongue in cheek, and as he says ,that is another story. The storytelling is superb, a story within a story, an adventure for the ages and a moral tale that doesn't club you upside the head. The humor is great, it is funny stuff that transcends the cultural differences.The scenery is spectacular, especialy on your giant screen with surround sound. You will feel as if you are walking with the aborigines. The mixture of mystical shamans beliefs and otherworldly scenery, shifting from black and white to color is hallucinatory and adds an extra dimension to an already multi-layered on many levels movie. The ages old lust-for-your-brother's wife is the vehicle for the narration as you join in the adventure two fold(two different time periods)in creating ten canoes from scratch(pulling the bark)as the men embark on a journey that reveals the past in the present.Read more ›
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"Ten Canoes" unusual story-within-a-story structure allows a glimpse of one Indigenous Australian culture while it offers a timeless fable with enough drama to satisfy both Western and Yolngu tastes. The film was conceived by writer/director Rolf de Heer as a project for and about the native people of Arnhem Land in Northern Australia, from whence his friend actor David Gulpilil, who narrates the film, hails. The film's style and narrative structure were inspired by the photographs of anthropologist Dr. Donald Thomson, who took over 4,000 pictures of the Yolngu people in the 1930s while their ancient traditions were still widely practiced, including an iconic photo of ten canoeists on a goose egg hunt.

As the film opens on the beautiful blue and green of Arnhem Land, a Storyteller (David Gulpilil) introduces us to a story of his people, of the young man Dayindi (Jamie Gulpilil) who covets the youngest wife of his older brother Minygululu (Peter Minygululu). While Dayindi experiences his first goose egg gathering expedition with the men in Arafura Swamp, his brother tells him a tale of their ancient ancestors to guide him: Among the ancients, there was a young man, Yeeralparil, who also fancied the youngest of his warrior brother Ridjimiraril's (Crusoe Kurddal) wives. One day, a Stranger (Michael Dawu) appeared in camp to trade objects of sorcery. He was sent on his way with food and good wishes, but a cloud of misfortune and ill will remained behind.

"Ten Canoes" offers drama, humor, and a striking visual exploration of a traditional culture and the lands that shaped it for millennia. The goose egg hunt sequences are in black-and-white, placing them in "Thomson Time", as they recall and dramatize the photographs that captured that annual ritual.
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Format: DVD
I am very surprised at the first review that has been posted. If the story didn't capture your imagination, then I cannot comprehend how the cinematography didn't - visually, it is amazing and beautiful!

If you want un-subtle hollywood-type action, then this film is definitely not for you - you will not be spoon-fed. It is humourous (not in an overt, shove-it-in-your-face way), and the characters well developed (also unheard of in most mainstream h-films). The shifting time structures also emphasise the way that the oral tradition is used within the film. For those with time to allow their imagination to go beyond the horizon, then I would definitely recommmend this film for you!
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Format: DVD
The best film I've seen about the aboriginal culture of Australia.

After watching this film for 10-15 minutes, the viewer either will be intrigued by the story, acting & cinematography or convinced that it's not to their liking. If you enjoy cinematic art, you will be rewarded richly by De Heers' respectful portrayal of the indigenous people - their humor, hunting and gathering expeditions, and everyday life in the lands where they and their ancestors lived and died for centuries.

The aboriginal cast speaking in the native language of Ganalbingu adds a degree of authenticity that few film makers ever capture and that enriches the viewing experience. Watching this production is akin to being an unseen visitor in a world that is so different from any that most of us will ever encounter or imagine.

To heighten appreciation of the tremendous effort and care that went into making this film, I highly recommend watching the Special Feature entitled BALANDA & THE MAKING OF TEN CANOES.
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