Ancestral Aboriginal Song, Ten Canoes
- In The_Eagle_And_The_Condor, "Carlos Pelayo" wrote:
Ancient Aboriginal Tales, Parallel Across Epochs
Ancient Aboriginal Tales, Parallel Across Epochs
By STEPHEN HOLDEN
Published: June 1, 2007
"I came from a water hole," declares the wise, slyly humorous
Storyteller, who narrates "Ten Canoes," Rolf de Heer's mesmerizing
film of Australian Aboriginal life many centuries ago. As he muses on
birth, death and reincarnation in tribal mythology, and goes on to
relate an ancient, rambling fable in which a young man learns
patience, the cycle of human life is indivisible from the rhythms of
the natural world.
Aborigines from centuries past do a death dance in Rolf de Heer's "Ten
"Ten Canoes," the 10th feature by Mr. de Heer, a Dutch-born Australian
filmmaker, is a close collaboration between him and the Ramingining
Aboriginal people, many of whom appear in the movie. The first feature
made in an Australian indigenous language (there are several different
dialects), it swept the 2006 Australian Academy Awards. For the
director it was the next logical step into ethnographic territory
after his 2002 film, "The Tracker." In its immersion in a primitive
culture, it recalls Zacharias Kunuk's comparably impressive 2002 film,
"Atanarjuat" ("The Fast Runner"), the first Canadian Inuit feature.
The Storyteller, portrayed by the veteran Aborigine actor David
Gulpilil Ridjimiraril Dalaithngu ("Walkabout," "The Last Wave" and
"Rabbit-Proof Fence," billed simply as David Gulpilil), is the only
character who speaks English. Almost everyone else in the 90-minute
film, set in the Arnhem Land in Australia's Northern Territory, east
of Darwin, speaks the Ganalbingu language, which is translated into
colloquial, occasionally racy subtitles.
Once you become accustomed to the mystical vocabulary describing a
world without modern science and technology, it amounts to using
different terms to describe universal experience. Both the
Storyteller's tale and the movie that contains it transport you out of
time and leave you wondering if sorcery, religion and psychotherapy
are different forms of magic.
Everything begins and ends with the water hole, where people are fish
who ask to be born and where they eventually return, only to repeat
the cycle. Evil spirits bring on calamity, and sorcery is the not
always reliable solution of last resort.
There is nothing more enthralling than a good yarn, and "Ten Canoes"
interweaves two versions of the same story, one filmed in black and
white and set a thousand years ago, and an even older one, filmed in
color and set in a mythic, prehistoric past.
The newer narrative begins when the tribal chief, Minygululu (Peter
Minygululu), leads 10 warriors on a journey deep into the forest to
gather bark to make canoes, which they paddle into a
crocodile-infested swamp in search of goose eggs. Making the trip for
the first time is Minygululu's impatient younger brother, Dayindi
(Jamie Dayindi Gulpilil Dalaithngu, David Gulpilil Ridjimiraril
Dalaithngu's son), who vents his frustration at having no wife. He
pines for the youngest of Minygululu's three wives, though to pursue
her would be to violate tribal law.
As their journey continues, Minygululu pacifies Dayindi by regaling
him with an ancient story that addresses his plight. Its message can
be boiled down to the phrase "All in good time."
There is a lot of playful wit in the story. The men laugh and tease
each other about sexual prowess and endowment, while back in camp the
women squabble and complain about their husbands.
The look of these black-and-white scenes was inspired by a photo of 10
canoeists taken by the anthropologist Donald Thomson, who worked in
the area in the mid-1930s and lived for months among the original
inhabitants, the Yolngu. Thomson left behind 4,000 black-and-white
photographs of the Yolngu culture.
The ancient story Minygululu tells to his younger brother is a
loose-jointed fable whose solemnity is continually undercut by joking
asides and tangents that propose alternative directions the tale might
take. Its central character, Minygululu's ancient ancestor,
Ridjimiraril (Crusoe Kurddal), is also a tribal chief who lives with
three wives, one wise, one jealous and one (the youngest) beautiful.
Like Dayindi, Ridjimiraril' s younger brother, Yeeralparil (played by
the same actor), pines for the youngest and prettiest of his older
brother's wives. Shortly after a stranger visits the tribe,
Ridjimiraril' s middle wife disappears, and her husband imagines that
she has been kidnapped by the stranger.
Months later another visitor reports that the wife has been spotted
living with the stranger in a distant camp. Ridjimiraril leads a war
party to retrieve her, but she is not there. Yeeralparil is forbidden
to join the party because if his older brother is killed, he must take
over his wives. There is much more to come, including murder and
revenge and threat of war. But you can see where this is headed as a
Contemplating a film like "Ten Canoes" or "Atanarjuat," you confront
inevitable questions about the depiction of primitive peoples in
feature films and documentaries. Where does detached observation end
and emotional identification begin? At what point does admiration for
the noble savage become condescending and sentimental? If the humor of
"Ten Canoes" largely liberates it from ethnographic solemnity, it
feels suspiciously contemporary.
The cinematographer Ian Jones's ravishing vision of an unspoiled
paradise seduces you as powerfully as John Toll's photography did in
Terrence Malick's "Thin Red Line." In the Malick film, set on
Guadalcanal, paradise is despoiled almost from the moment it is
discovered and soldiers tramp across its sacred ground. In "Ten
Canoes" that paradise is an eternal past.
Opens today in Manhattan.
Directed by Rolf de Heer; written (in various Yolngu Aboriginal
dialects, with English subtitles) by Mr. de Heer and the people of
Ramingining; director of photography, Ian Jones; edited by Tania
Nehme; traditional music performed by Richard Birrinbirrin, Peter
Minygululu, Billy Black, John Nudumul and Mark Muruwirri; produced by
Mr. de Heer and Julie Ryan; released by Palm Pictures. At the Cinema
Village, 22 East 12th Street, Greenwich Village. Running time: 90
minutes. This film is not rated.
WITH: Crusoe Kurddal (Ridjimiraril) , Jamie Dayindi Gulpilil
Dalaithngu (Dayindi/Yeeralpari l), Richard Birrinbirrin (Birrinbirrin)
, Peter Minygululu (Minygululu) , Frances Djulibing (Nowalingu) and
David Gulpilil Ridjimiraril Dalaithngu (the Storyteller) .
Speaking in Native Tongues
By STEVE DOLLAR
June 1, 2007
An Aboriginal fable that gently unwinds for a hypnotic
hour-and-a-half, the magic-infused "Ten Canoes" takes the notion of
narrative on a walkabout. It's a yarn-within- a-yarn and then some,
immersed in a native tongue and tone that saturates the viewer in
uncut ethnographic funk. The film is awash in folksy lyricism and
rough humor, its cultural codes seeping into the consciousness like
the brackish swamp water its wooden vessels float through.
Those canoes have been dutifully fashioned from tree bark as members
of a Yolngu tribe in the Northern Territory of Australia head out on
their annual hunt for goose eggs. It is, a puckish narrator (the
Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil) intones, before a chortle, a time
"long, long ago in a place far, far away": a thousand years, at least,
before Westerners materialized on the rugged landscape. The men's
journey is long and physically taxing. It is also dangerous: The
marshy terrain is populated by alligators, which require the hunters
to build sleeping platforms in thickets of trees. To entertain
themselves as they mush and paddle, they tell stories ï¿½ really,
really, really long stories.
The story Australian director Rolf de Heer has chosen to recast, with
English voice-overs and subtitles for Ganalbingu ï¿½ a language whose
rhythms have a captivating vibrancy ï¿½ is a revenge drama meant to
teach about the perils of misjudgment. "Be careful what you wish for"
is its message. An elder, Minygululu, who has three wives, intends to
cool the ardor of the young bachelor, Dayindi (Jamie Gulpilil, the
narrator's son, who resembles an Aborginal Andre Benjamin). The kid
has an eye on Minygululu's third and most beautiful wife. So the elder
begins telling a story from a time before time, about a village
leader, his three wives, his lustful baby brother ï¿½ and a mysterious
As the saga unfolds, Mr. de Heer's conceptual gifts make the
exposition a constant delight and surprise. He uses the same Aborginal
cast of nonactors for both the film's present and past, doubling the
characters in a sense, shooting the former in stark black-and-white
and the latter in lush color. Both are sumptuously filmed by
cinematographer Ian Jones, who evokes a celebrated photographic series
made in 1937 by the Australian anthropologist Donald Thomson. The
camera's movements are deliberately mapped. Slow tracking shots and
stationary frames observe the storytelling tribesmen, while the
flashbacks are captured by a lens in fluid motion, snaking in and
around the action, almost from the stalker's perspective in a 1970s
Perhaps emulating the Aborginal sense of time as a kind of boundless
continuum, as well as spiritual beliefs in the migration of ancestral
souls, the film's separate halves continually dissolve into and out of
each other. This tactic might seem to make a dense and complex
enterprise even more so, but it actually makes it easier to assimilate
the Yolngu arcana.
The rich performances that Mr. de Heer elicits from his
non-professional cast (who determined their own roles based on the
strict lineage rules of the Yolngu: The kinship relationships between
two actors in the film had to be the same as the relationships between
the characters they were playing) also contribute mightily to the
film's enveloping drama. Often with little more than a still shot and
crisp editing, the director can convey the desired effect, while the
story gradually loops backward and forward.
Since so much of "Ten Canoes" abides in the small details and intimate
rhythms of their revelation, it's shameful to outline more than the
basics. In the cautionary tale, the village leader, Ridjimiraril, gets
spooked by a stranger who briefly visits his people, and may have cast
a spell on him ï¿½ which seems to be as easy as finding some carelessly
deposited excrement in the woods and setting it on fire. When one of
Ridjimiraril' s three wives disappears, everyone suspects this unknown
sorcerer, but it's only later when the men gather their spears to
track him down, with tragic results. Through it all, the longing of
Yeeralparil, the troubled leader's little brother, for his youngest
wife, is played like a chorus ï¿½ and a comic rejoinder.
The great beauty of "Ten Canoes" is not only photographic and
linguistic. The film also abides in its potent display of ritual and
communal ethics, filtered through a refreshing commitment to
presenting the real deal. A good story must be told properly, the
narrator insists, and "Ten Canoes" does just that.
Mel Gibson, take note.