Myth-making and storytelling, Aboriginal-style, Rolf de Heer's 'Ten Canoes' is a vivid celebration of native Australian culture. It is narrated by veteran Aboriginal actor, dancer and performer David Gulpilil, who made his debut in Nicholas Roeg's 1971 classic 'Walkabout'. To a large extent, he is also the man responsible for the film.
Cast as the lead in de Heer's last film, 2002's 'The Tracker', Gulpilil invited the director to his traditional lands, near Ramingining in the Arafura Swamp, and broached the idea of making a film set in the area. He was also the person who brought a photograph of 10 canoes by legendary 1930s anthropologist Donald Thomson to de Heer's attention, thus setting the seed that grew organically, in consultation with the people of Ramingining, into this film.
The narrative is in three strands. A cheerful and chatty Gulpilil narrates two stories - the framing one, shot in black and white, is that of a group of men making and travelling in traditional bark canoes for the annual goose egg gathering. Among the men are Minygululu (Minygululu) and his younger brother Dayindi (Gulpilil's 22-year-old son, Jamie). Minygululu knows that Dayindi has a yearning for his third wife and decides to tell him an ancestral story to show him the error of his ways.
That story, shown in colour flashbacks, is woven into the goose egg gathering ceremony. Set in the far distant past, it tells of a man called Yeeralparil (also played by Jamie Gulpilil) who covets the third wife of his older brother. Unlike the framing story, where not very much happens, albeit in a picturesque manner, the historical tale is full of dramatic action - forbidden love and kidnapping, strangers and sorcery, murder and revenge.
Like an old National Geographic magazine brought to life, 'Ten Canoes' is an exquisitely photographed (by Ian Jones) insight into a way of life that will be alien to most viewers. For those who have also seen Ray Lawrence's recently released 'Jindabyne', it will give more clarity to the ritual gathering at the end of that film. Although filmed almost entirely in a variety of indigenous languages, predominantly Ganalbingu, 'Ten Canoes' mixes a disarming bawdy humour with the ethnographically raw material, making it accessible to a wider audience. Make no mistake though; this is undoubtedly a more challenging film than your typical cineplex release. Nevertheless, allowing yourself the time and headspace to become immersed in this story and culture is a rewarding experience.