Ten Canoes: Film Review

Ten Canoes was released in 2007 and is a beautiful film. It reminded me of Avatar but in the real, happening right now.

Ten CanoesThe Aboriginal director, Peter Djigirr tells he made this film because the Balanda (that’s us white folks) keep on coming and destroy without recognising their laws and culture, which have evolved over millennia. He hopes that new generations of Aboriginals will see the movie and remember their culture and that white people will start to recognise that they have no respect for a culture far older than their own.

The producer, Rolf de Heer, shows astounding patience in making this film. Beset with Mosquitos, leeches and crocodiles, diverse cultures and languages, problems with nudity, cava hangovers, feelings of despondency and self doubt, actors walking off – a different universe of understanding – he turns out a movie that is rightfully multi-award winning in both Australia and at the Cannes film festival. Time Out Magazine and the Financial Times give it 5 stars.

The movie is set in Central Arnheim Land and played entirely by an aboriginal cast from a local township. It is spoken in Aboriginal, with subtitles and a spoken narrative in English. The film centres around a canoe journey to find goose eggs in which a mythical story is told concerning ‘right thinking’.

Right from the outset you enter into their world and see how the Aboriginals once lived inside a deep relationship with their land, inhabiting it with dreams, visions, magic and interactions that seem remote from Western Culture.

There is a story within a story, a mythology with sorcery, warring tribes, misunderstandings, mistaken identity and bawdy humour which reminds me of Comedia D’el Arte crossed with a Medieval Morality play. The story involves a warrior with three wives, the youngest of whom is coveted by his younger brother. The movie is a vessel (or ten) in which we enter the waters of traditional Aboriginal life. There is an old saying that having another language is like having another soul – and this movie certainly transported me into the language of the Aboriginal soul, (for a while at least before an estate agent came round to view the property I live in). It gave me a feeling of peace experiencing all that wildness and beauty without the reality of mosquitos, leeches and crocs.

The film is a small miracle in that during the process of its making, the indigenous peoples of the township were put back in touch with bark canoe making, spear making and throwing, being naked outside, although one of them did forget to take off his Band Aids for the take.

Despite the complexities of casting in a social order beyond the comprehension of the producer, of telling a story in the wrong order (a hideous thing for an Aboriginal) this movie is a little gem and it is well worth watching the ‘how it was made’ footage also. Much of the visual footage is derived from the photographic evidence of an anthropologist from the 1930’s.

It’s like a parallel to the Christian Garden of Eden myth, that; ‘we had laws and no clothes, we had bush tucker’, then the white man came. In this case the snake that causes the end to their Eden is Balanda.

As the producer claims, for the actors at least, the process of making this movie brought back their culture from a faraway place, elevating them and helping them to feel stronger after the inexorable crushing of the Balanda holocaust. It is a real treat to be involved in this story which works so well on many levels. Strongly recommended.

simonthescribe writes and publishes articles, books and websites themed around living a sustainable life in tune with nature.

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