Seen at the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF)
Directed by Rolf de Heer (2006)
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. Ridjimirarils 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.