Saturday, June 02, 2007

TEN CANOES - tricksy Aborigine folk tale

TEN CANOES runs rings around its audience. It starts with a beautiful slow sweeping shot of a river winding through lush almost luminous grass. An aborigine narrator, David Gulpilil, opens with a fairytale: "Once upon a time...." and then immediately checks our expectations with a "no, it's not that kind of story!" The narrator baits us with the promise of a great story, but at the same time holds it distant from us. It's not our kind of story but his story. And amidst all this talk of a story he firmly refuses to get on with it! No, we must wait and do things his way, starting at the very beginning, with the aborigine creation story.

After this prologue, we move back in time to the era of the narrator's grandparents. In black and white, we see aborigine men out on a hunting expedition. They are stripping the bark off trees to make canoes in order to gather goose-eggs. The scenes look like images from old anthropology textbooks and the patient narration has a quasi-nature doc. feel to it. But before we fall into the trap of imagining the aborigines as naive, innocent children of the earth, they start cracking jokes about farts, small pricks, impotence and gluttonous grandfathers (the scene-stealing Richard Birrinbirrin). It transpires that Dayindi (Jamie Galpilil) is after his elder brother Minygululu's pretty young third wife. So Minygululu tells Dayindi a salutory tale to teach him "to live proper." And that's the tale that the narrator, FINALLY, is going to tell us.

So, once again, we shift back even further in time to the ancients, where another brother is lusting after his elder brother's wife. We're back in colour and it seems to a modern audience that we might finally be getting somewhere. Of course, the narrator can't help cutting back to the goose-egg gathering, or making wry comments. But the tale does flower, with plenty of humour and not a little pathos.

Eventually, the story comes to its conclusion. The narrator teases us again: "And they all lived happily ever after." Of course, he's joking. But the interesting part for me was that as much as the narrator wants to distance us from this very different tale, it has the same sort of pat moral as your typical European folk tale. Small world, eh?

TEN CANOES played Toronto, London and Cannes, where it won the Un Certain Regard prize for 2006. It opened in Italy, Australia, Greece, Norway and France in 2006. It opened in the Netherlands and Belgium earlier this year and is crrently on release in the UK and US. It opens in Germany on August 9th 2007.


  1. Did you see the article about this film in the Metro (I think) a week or so ago? Australian aborigines really have an amazing culture. The concept of fiction, as we know it, doesn't exist for them. All of their stories, even the ones we would clearly class as myths or legends, to them actually happened. When the actors in this film were portraying their ancestors, they weren't pretending, to them they actually were their ancestors. As a result, they wouldn't ever do more than one take, they just couldn't comprehend why it might be necessary. So, if there was a bad take, the film-maker (who's name I forget) either had to just use it anyway, or cut that scene. Fascinating stuff!

  2. I didn't see the article, but it makes sense within the context of the film. What I like about the film is that you learn so much on so many levels. The story itself is interesting sociologically, but the wrapper of the goose-egg hunting trip is similarly interesting. So all these things that would be considered over-complicated in a Western narrative structure are actually the charm of the film....