In recent years there have been a growing number of films that focus on the lives of indigenous peoples and that are made from their point of view, including “The Fast Runner” and “The Story of the Weeping Camel”–about Inuit and Mongolian society respectively.
They are now joined by “Ten Canoes,” a film about the Yolngu aborigines of Australia’s northwestern Arnhem Land. “Ten Canoes” was the brainchild of David Gulpilil, a Yolngu actor who starred in Nicolas Roeg’s 1971 “Walkabout,” “The Rabbit-Proof Fence” and a host of other films. After kicking around some ideas for an all-Yolngu film with director Rolf de Heer, a Dutchman who moved to Australia in 1959, they finally settled on a story inspired by the image of ten canoes that appeared in a photo taken by anthropologist Donald Thomson in the 1930s. Thomson worked in Arnhem Land when the indigenous people’s lives were still relatively untouched by capitalist property relations. His photos depicted daily life, like the creation of canoes, the preparing of food, rituals, etc. With the help of today’s Yolngu people, who only have memories of this life for the most part, “Ten Canoes” is an attempt to recreate that reality. Co-Director Peter Djigirr, who helped to write the script with other indigenous peoples, explained the importance of capturing their traditions on film:
We come from this land.
People, Balanda [a word for whites derived from Hollander, the first Europeans to come into contact with the Yolngu], always come, miners and that, and we always say no to them, no mining, because we don’t want to lose our culture. White man’s ways will just destroy us.
We have our law from long time ago, important law for everything, but all them white men come more and more and we can’t stay in that law. That law just dropping away.
If we go more further with losing our law then maybe white men can tell us, “Where’s your culture?…Nothing, you’re lost, all bad luck for you.”
The story of “Ten Canoes” has a shaggy dog quality. With narration by David Gulpilil, it is far more interested in depicting the “undramatic” diurnal existence of his people. The opening scenes, for example, depict a group of Yolngu men stripping bark from trees deep within the swamp, carrying them back to their village on their heads and preparing it to be turned into canoes. As they go about their chores, they joke with each other and gossip about village life.
We soon learn that the young and unmarried Dayindi (played by Jamie Gulpilil, David’s son) lusts after the youngest of the three wives of Ridjimiraril (Crusoe Kurrdal). When village elder Birrinbirrin (played by co-producer Richard Birrinbirrin, a Yolngu artist and conservator of indigenous culture) discovers this, he spins out a long tale that amounts to a film within the film about their ancestors from 10,000 years earlier who get involved with similar conflicts over women.
The Aesopian moral of the story is that you are often better off making do with what you have. The general picture of Yolngu mores that emerges from the film is that strife is to be avoided at all costs. When one of Dayindi’s ancestors kills a man from another village in a jealous rage, the rival camps agree to a “payback”, which involves the killer dodging spears thrown by the aggrieved villagers. This “eye for an eye” ritual is understood by all Yolngus as a way of avoiding more costly wars.
Interestingly enough, the contemporary Yolngus who cooperated on the writing of the film had to be coaxed into including even this much conflict. Since it was represented as something that happened 10,000 years ago, it was more readily accepted.
Since the film is far more focused on daily life than on typical Western dramatic conflict, the rhythms of the film might seem slack. However, once you adjust to them, the film satisfies on other levels. It is an opportunity to see what life was like for indigenous peoples in Australia on their own terms. Compared to the daily horrors of capitalist society, they seem far more civilized.
“Ten Canoes” is scheduled to open at Cinema Village in New York on June 1. The film’s website is at http://www.tencanoes.com.au