Dir: Rolf de Heer. Aus.2006. 91mins.
The Adelaide Film Festival has aninvestment fund which, with its first feature flutter last year, shrewdlybacked the critically acclaimed Look BothWays. Sarah Watt's drama about fractured lives in a big city suburb went onto play well at international festivals - it won Toronto's Discovery award - aswell as scooping four AFI awards at home, including best film and bestdirector.
The fund's second releasedfeature, Rolf de Heer's magical Ten Canoes, is thematically very different, following as it does anindigenous tribe in far northern Australia thousands of years ago. But it iscertain to receive a similar positive critical reception to its predecessorafter its Adelaide premiere at the weekend.
Also backed by the SouthAustralian Film Corporation among others, TenCanoes should enjoy strong play at home, where it will be released in Juneand marketed as showing a side of Australia long before the colonists arrived.
Buzz should also be good in arthouse markets overseas (witness the success of 2001 CameraD'Or winner TheFast Runner, based on an Innuit legend), particularlyin continental European markets, where ethnographic features often find favour.Constant near-nudity may cause problems with more prudish audiences.
Marketed as the firstfeature made in an Australian indigenous language (there are hundreds, of whichTen Canoes features several) anyproblems in understanding are alleviated by colloquial subtitles and abrilliantly delivered English voice-over from Australian film icon David Gulpilil Ridjimiraril Dalaithngu, better known as David Gulpilil.
He begins seriously ("Onceupon a time in a land far, far away'"), before dissolving into giggles andsteering the story's 10 bark canoes into mythical waters for "a story likeyou've never seen before".
Director, writer andco-producer de Heer is the centre of thisconsiderable achievement. He worked with non-English-speaking indigenous peopleon the storyline, script and approach, gaining difficult permits and approvalsfrom traditional communities living in Raminining,north-east Arnhem Land. Though their homes and livesseem modern, they still retain strong links to ancient laws, ceremonies,kinship rules and ancestor worship. Fashioning a tale of universal power, de Heer has assembled a non-professional cast who deliver spontaneity,commitment and a delightful sense of fun.
The work is in twointertwined halves, effortlessly linked by Gulpilil'sfriendly voice-over.
First, a black-and-whitedocumentary approach introduces a group of men about to go on a goose-egghunting expedition. The time period here feels indeterminate but it is around athousand years ago, with no signs of outside influence. The hunting sequencesare modelled on surviving photographic images shot by anthropologist DonaldThomson in the mid-1930s as, in formal National Geographic style, we watch thewarriors prepare their ten canoes from tree bark and pole out across the Arafura Swamp.
It becomes apparent that oneyoung man (Jamie Dayindi GulpililDalaithngu, 20-year-old son of narrator David) islovesick for the third and youngest wife of their leader (Minygululu).As the hunt progresses, the canny older man tells his potential rival aninstructive ancestral story.
De Heerthen switches to lush colours, as this cautionary tale takes the audience backto the Dream Time, "after the Flood", tens of thousands of years ago. It tooconcerns a youth (Gulipilil again) who lusts after thethird wife of his older brother (Kurddal). Now de Heer allows himself much greater cinematic freedom, withfluid camera movement through the bush, atmospheric lighting and dramatic soundmontage.
The old man's mythic storyof Lust Denied grows, says the narrator, like a great swamp tree with manybranches. Most members of the tribe become involved: a wife disappears, astranger is murdered and ancient laws of payback are invoked whereby theconfessed perpetrator must dodge hostile spears until blood is drawn.
Bothstrands of Ten Canoes - expertly weaved together by de Heer'sregular editor Tania Nehme - are swiftly paced,compelling and illuminating. It's a positive treat to see these indigenouspeople portrayed as empowered and in control of their lives and culture, incontrast to their frequent film presentation as passive victims of colonialaggression and disrespect.
Spectacular swamp and bushphotography by Ian Jones is of prime importance to the overall impact, andproves all the more compelling when you consider the days he and his directorspent waist deep in a tropical swamp alive with mosquitoes, leeches andcrocodiles (a behind-the-scenes documentary, Eighteen Canoes, is also available).
Incidental music ontraditional instruments is incorporated into sound design by James Currie andTom Heuzenroeder which contributes hugely to the work'sauthenticity and gravitas.
Film Finance Corporation Australia
South Australian Film Corporation
Adelaide Film Festival
Rolf de Heer
Rolf de Heer in consultation with the people of Ramingining
Ian Jones Editor
Jamie Dayindi Gulpilil Dalaithngu
David Gulpilil RidjimirarilDalaithngu (narrator)