Ten Canoes

Starring David Gulpilil and the People of Ramingining. Directed by Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigirr.
Running Time: 90 minutes.
Rated: Rated M.
Rolf de Heer's name in the final credits comes at the end of a long list of aboriginal names. The film is also described as 'a film by Rolf de Heer and the People of Ramingining. Basically, this is an Australian aborigines' film. It tells their story (and stories within stories), in their way, performed and sung by aborigines, many of them non-professional actors. It can serve as a model for other films of this kind. It also serves as a cinema documentation of an ancient way of life, lore and law which was always oral, never written.

Actor/dancer, David Gulpilil, veteran of films for almost forty years (Walkabout, Storm Boy, Crocodile Dundee, Rabbit Proof Fence) does the constant voiceover for Ten Canoes and explains (after jokingly starting 'Once upon a time..' and then rejecting this) that it is his people's story and he wanted to tell it. He worked with director Rolf de Heer in telling an early 20th century aboriginal story, The Tracker (2002). He clearly trusts de Heer to make cinema of the story, not intrude his western perspectives but to bring an Australian sensibility that began with De Heer's birth in Holland and his early childhood in Indonesia. He has served the film well. His cinematic achievements include Dingo, Bad Boy Bubby, The Quiet Room, Dance Me to My Song and The Old Man who Read Love Stories).

It is important to note and praise the beauty of the photography (both black and white and colour) of the Northern Territory's Arnhem Land), the landscapes, the water holes and swamps, the bush.

David Gulpilil is telling his story to us the audience and addresses us, invites us to look and listen and, according to aboriginal time which is not something to be chronologically measured, be patient as the story takes its own time, with interruptions, to unfold. He invites us to experience something of the Dreaming, the mythical 'time' of aboriginal myth.

When he tells the story of his ancestors, the film is in black and white. As it goes back millennia, the landscapes change to colour, the colour and colours of the honoured past which established tradition, a law which served justice and a hunting way of life in harmony with the land which meant survival for thousands of years.

And the story, we are constantly assured, is a good story: it deals with tribe, with family, with wives, with covetousness, with responsibility, with sorcery, with inter-tribal hostility and wrongs, with the traditional punishment by spear, with death, with the rituals of the soul leaving the body, the tribe singing and dancing a person into death.

This is the heritage passed on, always orally.

And, for us non-aborigines in the audience, especially the descendants of the late-comers to the land, we hear the original language, we are privy to the day by day activities, the men's chatter and jokes, the patterns for hunting, the plight of the women. We see aborigines as human and humane and, for want of a less patronising-sounding word, 'sophisticated' in a way that should never be underestimated. (But, there is a touch of irony when, at the end of the credits, the present Australian Government has its name and emblem right up there with the others who have given their heart and soul to the project.)

Fr Peter Malone MSC directs the film desk of SIGNIS: the World Association of Catholic Communicators, and an associate of the Australian Catholic Film Office.

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