One hundred and fifty spears, ten canoes, three wives... trouble. It is the distant past, tribal times. Dayindi (Jamie Gulpilil) covets one of the wives of his older brother. To teach him the proper way, he is told a story from the mythical past, a story of wrong love, kidnapping, sorcery, bungling mayhem and revenge gone wrong. Ten Canoes is a surreal tragi-comedy in the Ganalbingu language of the remote Arafura Swamp region of north-eastern Arnhem Land, Australia.
"Once upon a time in a land far, far away" (laughter) "I'm only joking!"
So begins Ten Canoes, narrated by prolific Australian performer David Gulpilil Ridjimiraril Dalaithngu. We are guided with the lightest of touch and expertly steered along a complex path of two intertwining stories. The first story is shot in black and white and set in tribal times, 1000 years ago in Northern Australia.
It is goose egg hunting season and Minygululu (played by Peter Minygululu) leads ten men to harvest bark for canoe making. He learns that his younger brother, Dayindi (Jamie Dayindi Gulpilil Dalaithngu), has taken a fancy to his third and youngest wife. Tribal law is in danger of being breeched, so Minygululu decides to tell Dayindi an ancestral story, hoping to set him straight. The story is elaborate and takes time to tell. It unfolds over the many days of canoe making and goose egg hunting.
The second story is the ancestral tale told to Dayindi. Shot in colour and set in mythical times (Dreamtime), it tells of another younger brother, Yeeralparil (also played by Jamie Dayindi Gulpilil Dalaithngu), who covets Munandjarra (Cassandra Malangarri Baker), the wife of his brother Ridjimiraril (Crusoe Kurddal). The story takes off into an epic tale of sorcery, kidnapping, revenge, mistaken identity and much hilarity.
Our route through the film's narrative is meandering not linear and the colour coding helps us navigate this difficult temporal terrain. Ten Canoes does not arrive at a resolution directly but perhaps the destination is not more important than the journey taken.
Traveling the scenic route, allows us time and space to get to know more intimately the people inhabiting this tale. They become familiar to us, like old friends. The film recreates that intensely pleasurable sense of just hanging out, watching time unfold. There is intrigue and tension though. Conventions of dramatic storytelling are not altogether dispensed with. We want to know what happens to our protagonists.
However, director Rolf de Heer and co-director Peter Djigirr elevate the importance of the journey (for the audience) to equal that of the d'nouement. At Dayindi's own impatience to know the outcome of the tale, Minygululu admonishes him with "a good story must have a proper telling". And Ten Canoes does adhere to 'proper telling'.
Its genesis was based on friendship between David Gulpilil and Rolf de Heer. The inspiration for the film was a 1930s photograph of ten canoeists, taken by Anthropologist Dr. Donald Thomson, in his attempt to engender cross-cultural understanding. And finally de Heer and Djigirr act as 'translators' of a story collectively owned by the Yolngu collaborators.
Many filmmakers may gasp at the level of control de Heer and producer Julie Ryan were prepared to relinquish but the end result is a richer story, full of nuances. Constant community negotiations regarding story, shooting schedule, casting (no mention of screen tests,) rather than damage, enhance the film.
One compromise reached, was the mixture of colour and black-and-white photography. While the production was contractually bound to deliver a colour film, the Thomson photographs made imperative B&W representation. A decision was made to use B&W to represent Tribal time (a real historical moment Thomson's photographs reference) and colour for mythical time (which allows for all sorts of interpretation). Colour shifts in the storytelling in fact work to Ten Canoes' advantage. BW imbues tribal time with a sense of nostalgia for a bygone era, a real historical moment that has vanished. The obverse, colour representation, gives Dreamtime an immediacy and ongoing currency.
The narrator tells us, "It's a good story but you got to listen ey. Maybe you're like Dayindi, maybe the story will teach you how to live proper way."
Ten Canoes has complex layers of moral teaching. The mythical story is told for Dayindi benefit but the tribal story is told for the audience's benefit, to teach us all how to "live proper way".
The aftermath of Ten Canoes, is proof that stories, in their telling, can change lives. Post-Ten Canoes, the creation of community based projects Eleven Canoes, Twelve Canoes and so on up to Eighteen Canoes, is testament to the power of storytelling.
Ten Canoes' affect is not just the re-awakening of tradition and pride in a contemporary indigenous audience but also historical, personal and aesthetic lessons for a non-indigenous audience. In the words of the narrator, "It's a good story, not like your story, but a good story all the same."
Watch 'Ten Canoes'
Wednesday 7 July, 9:30pm on SBS World Movies (streaming after at SBS On Demand)
Genre: Adventure, Comedy, Drama, History
Director: Rolf de Heer
Starring: Richard Birrinbirrin, Jamie Gulpilil, Crusoe Kurddal, David Gulpilil (narrator)