Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigirr, “Ten Canoes” (2006)
An engrossing story of another story, “Ten Canoes” acts as both a morality tale and an ingenious exposition of the values and beliefs of an Aboriginal community in Arnhem Land, in northern Australia. Like good stories, “Ten Canoes” aims to entertain as well as educate on different levels: as a story about a story, it teaches the value of patience, it contains an interesting twist and warning, and it demonstrates something of how the Yolngu people interpret past, present and future time, and how the passage or flow of time is not necessarily linear in the way Westerners experience time. The role of story-telling in an oral culture like the Yolngu culture goes far beyond simply repeating a story one might have heard as a child and passing it on to the next generation: it may be shaped, changed and improvised on to fit the story-teller’s aims; its narration takes time – maybe a lot of time, as in several days, even weeks – and certain things may have to happen first before the next chapter of the story can be told; and while the story appears to be simple to follow, its message/s may be profound and complex.
The story-about-a-story is narrated by David Gulpilil whose son Jamie appears also as two characters, Dayindi and Yeeralparil. Dayindi is one of ten men on a hunting expedition to find geese and their eggs for their community. The leader of the expedition, Minygululu (Peter Minygululu), is Dayindi’s much older brother who has three wives, the third of whom is a beautiful young girl who has caught Dayindi’s eye. Minygululu is aware of Dayindi’s interest in his wife so during the expedition he tells the younger man a story of another young man much like Dayindi and known as Yeeralparil, who lived in Yolngu country thousands of years ago.
Like Dayindi, Yeeralparil has an older brother, Ridjimiraril (Crusoe Kurddal), who also has three wives, of whom the youngest wife has caught Yeeralparil’s eye. Ridjimiraril is a much respected hunter in the community. One day, a stranger comes from the stone country beyond the rainforest where the Yolngu live and his arrival is interpreted by the resident Yolngu sorcerer (for want of a better term) as portending trouble. While the Yolngu people allow visiting rights to the stranger, Ridjimiraril’s second wife mysteriously disappears. Ridjimiraril believes the stranger has abducted her for his own and the angry hunter kills a man from the stranger’s tribe, mistaking him for the stranger. The stranger’s tribe demands payback to avoid war and Ridjimiraril submits. After the necessary ritual is performed, Yeeralparil not only gets what he wished for but extra responsibilities result as well, and he realises that from then on his life is going to be one endless hassle after another.
Enough of the Yolngu’s traditional customs and law are explained where necessary and relevant, and viewers see how law and tradition are used to avoid unnecessary and unwanted conflict, violence leading to more violence, and bitterness and resentment. David Gulpilil plays a significant role as narrator, spicing up his telling with humour and playfulness, and insinuating that, like Minygululu, this story-of-a-story needs to take its own time in unfolding and is dependent on listeners’ own willingness and receptiveness to its lessons. In amongst the story-telling, Minygululu, Dayinde and their eight companions prepare bark canoes to travel out onto the rivers and swamps to find and hunt the geese and look for their eggs.
Various characters engage in idle chit-chat and tell one another earthy jokes about turds and flatulence. One character, the jolly elder Birrinbirrin (Richard Birrinbirrin), is obsessed with finding his next honey hit. Wives scold their husbands, gossip about people who might be having affairs and occasionally squabble over petty matters. Men make plans about where they’ll hunt or when the right moment comes to go on the warpath. All this action takes place within a worldview which regards time as circular, in which humans begin their existence as tadpoles in waterholes and return to the exact same waterholes as tadpoles when they die. Within this paradigm, people must learn to let nature take its course, to be patient and to accept what nature gives to them.
The cinematography is well done, emphasising the nature of the country where the Yolngu people live and how it is a significant character in the film in its own right. Colours fade from colour to black-and-white but not in the way audiences might expect: the fading is done to show how concepts of the past, the present and the future mean little to a people for whom the past is very much alive and from which important lessons can and should be learned and heeded.