Ten Canoes

When I was a youngster in the 1950s, I longed for movies that would turn my bookish worlds of superheroes and dinosaurs into “living” adventures that would transport me with color and sound and action.  By the time Star Wars and Jurassic Park hit the cinema screens, it was a little too late for the boy in me.

So I was surprised to find that boyish excitement reborn a couple of weeks ago at the Virginia Film Festival when I had the chance to see Ten Canoes for the first time.  “Superman or Green Lantern ain’t got nothing on me,” sang Donovan in “Sunshine Superman.”  And Steven Spielberg ain’t got nothing on the cast and crew of this film.

Before I begin, let me lay out for those who may not have seen the film yet the dramatis personae, at least those who will figure in my remarks below. Given the parallel stories, one taking place in “Thomson time” and the other in ancestral time, the business of who’s who can be a little confusing to follow.

The Narrator (David Gulpilil) tells both stories in voiceover. During “Thomson time,” the part shot in black and white and representing events that may have occurred in the 1930’s, the two major characters are Minygululu, the elder brother, and Dayindi, the younger, who has eyes for Minygululu’s third wife. The corresponding pair of brothers in ancestral times, the part of the film shot in color, are Ridjimiraril and Yeeralparil. Ridjimiraril has a close friend and ally named Birrinbirrin, the honey lover. Ridjimiraril, like Minygululu, has three wives. Although it is the youngest one that Yeeralparil lusts after, it is the second wife, Nowalingu, who is crucial to the plot’s unfolding. In ancient times, there’s also a Sorcerer, and a mysterious Stranger.

With those preliminaries done, here is my critical assessment of the film: Wow!  

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but somehow seeing Donald Thomson’s photographs come to life in this manner was more than I had bargained for.  In a review of the film in the Sydney Morning Herald, director Rolf de Heer is quoted on the experience of community members in Ramingining watching television: “A cop show set in New York is just as likely to be thought to be happening in real time as looking out the window. As far as I can tell, the notion of fiction in their culture – and language – is either not the same as ours or doesn’t exist.”  Somehow, de Heer managed to make me feel much the same way, as though I were looking out a window and seeing something that partook of magic and realism at one and the same time, looking into a world that was both familiar and unknown.  

Perhaps I was expecting a neat, Aesopian fable about jealousy and covetousness, waiting for a younger brother to run off with an older brother’s wife and suffer the consequences.  And perhaps there was a little bit of a fable’s twist at the end when Yeeralparil does indeed get the girl–and much more than he bargained for.  But the moral of the story wasn’t what I had been expecting in that sense, although I should have understood that learning patience would be a far more important life lesson for a young man to master than overcoming his lust might be.  

And maybe I was misled by people who saw the movie and who said it moved slowly, that it was told like a true Aboriginal tale, not to be hurried along, much as the narrator explains that Dayindi must listen to the tale as it grows like the branches of a tree, turning this way and that, demanding that you follow the path its very nature dictates.  Because, honestly, I was on the edge of my seat almost from the first frame. Every turn of the plot was unexpected and engrossing.  Rather than the younger brother’s lust being the engine of the narrative, the disappearance of Nowalingu and its aftereffects moved the plot along, and made for a much more nuanced tale than the reviews had led me to expect.  

Similarly, the reviews tipped me off to the real-life continuity between Thomson time and the filming, that descendants of the men photographed in the ten canoes in the 1930s were starring in the modern film, and that the necessity of preserving proper skin relationships among characters in the two eras had posed some logistical difficulties in the casting and performance of the roles in the film.  But that proved to be only a pair of the layers than comprise the experience of this story.  

If I reconstruct the layers somewhat chronologically, the temporal sequence goes like this.  There is the ancestral time, Dreamtime perhaps, of Yeeralparil and Ridjimiraril.  That is mirrored in the story of Dayindi and Minygululu.  Then there is Thomson time of the 1903s, and the goose hunt that was captured in photographs.  That in turn is mirrored by the members of the movie’s cast taking on the roles of their fathers or grandfathers in the Arafura Swamp.  Minygululu tells a story to his younger brother much as David Gulpilil as the film’s narrator tells the story to contemporary film audiences.  As the story crosses generations, so too now it crosses from Yolngu to balanda.  And much of the delight of making the film for the people of Ramingining was the preservation of this old time story and the depiction of a way of life that it is in danger of vanishing.  I’m told that the younger actors learned the skill of making bark canoes from the older members of the community, and that those lessons are preserved in the early sequences of Ten Canoes.  They can in turn now be passed down to a younger generation.  And in fact, there are actually three different versions of the film: the one I saw, with Gulpilil’s English narration, another with Ganalpingu narration, and a third with no narrative voice at all, in which the story is presented only through the actions and dialog of those on screen.  

One frequently reads in the anthropological literature of the multiple levels of meaning in Dreaming stories and their progressive revelation over time.  The more I ponder this movie, the more I begin to realize how that multi-threaded structure works.  That’s another way in which the child in me watches heroes and monsters take life in the movie house after years of waiting.  At one level, there is simply the “public” story that is accessible to anyone who comes to the theater: the dangers of covetousness, or a warning to be careful what you wish for. With an appreciation for history, and a knowledge of Thomson’s work in the Top End, one begins to appreciate the continuity of Aboriginal culture through time, the way in which social norms and fundamental survival skills are handed down through the generations, how instruction proceeds from both observation (the building of the canoes) and from participation (the goose hunt, in which Dayindi is at first unsuccessful).  The parallels between the modern and the ancient stories give a more sophisticated viewer an insight into the unchanging nature of the Law, or the Dreaming.  

Many reviewers have commented on the humor of the movie.  Certainly the broad physical jokes, ranging from Birrinbirrin’s gluttony to the problems of having to walk last in a single file in the footsteps of a flatulent kinsman to the impotence jokes provoked belly laughs in the theater.  I think the audience was prepared for a serious “art house” film and was delighted to discover the Aboriginal sense of humor, which helped to create a sense of shared experience even across such obviously different cultures and life experiences and the separation of time.

But one of the things that impressed me was the contrasting subtlety of the story’s development, which gave just as much human interest.  The development of Birrinbirrin’s character over the course of the story is perhaps the best example of this that I can give.  At first, he is seen as a somewhat harmless figure of fun, with his passion for honey and the big belly that comes of his hunger.  Early on, Birrinbirrin’s laziness is seen as part and parcel of his gluttony, but it also means that he frequently stays in the camp while the other men are away.  When he’s not eating honey, he’s usually seen making spear points, which activity becomes significant in the second half of the film.  Chastened by the experience of participating with Ridjimiraril in the wrong spearing, he is seen back at the camp a short while later for the first time sharing his honey with the child who brings it to him.  And finally, when Nowalingu returns and the community learns the truth of her disappearance and the awful final irony of Ridjimiraril’s death, it is Birrinbirrin who is the force of conciliation and who prevents the other men from undertaking a revenge mission against the mob from across the river.  In his growth from hapless sidekick to leader, his presence provides an understated counterpoint to the growth in understanding that is Dayindi’s story, and the main thematic element in the film.

One element of the story that I haven’t seen commented on is the sorcery.  As I think back on the film (and memory can play tricks, of course), I remember that the action of the story of Ridjimiraril’s lost wife really seems to get underway after the introduction of the Sorcerer.  After the long close-up of the Sorcerer’s face, accompanied by Gulpilil’s introduction of the character, there is a sharp noise, and the camera cuts away from the Sorcerer and races across the landscape. The next event in the film is the unexplained appearance of the stranger, the moment from which the rest of the film depends. Is it possible to read a “deep story” into this initial sequence: that the entire plot of the long-ago story is really one of the Sorcerer’s revenge, so to speak? If it’s true that in the indigenous worldview, all deaths are ultimately the result of sorcery, does Ridjimiraril’s demise perhaps begin with a mysterious curse? The arrival of the stranger is certainly unexplained: he doesn’t announce his presence in the area by conventionally lighting a fire; he appears to be alone, but is in fact accompanied at least early on by another man (the eventual victim of the spearing) and later by a horde of avenging warriors, all of whom appear equally without warning. At the end of the film, when the Sorcerer cannot save Ridjimiraril, are we seeing a failure of his skill, or the completion of a process begun long before, and taking its slow path to fulfillment, much as the story of Yeeralparil’s education itself does?

At least one person to whom I’ve put forward this interpretation of events has rebuffed it. But I’m not ready to put it entirely to rest, at least until the film is released on DVD (coming in late January 2007) and I have the chance to see it a few more times. One reason I have a fondness for my theory is that in a way it makes me a participant in the unraveling of events, in the search for meaning that is part and parcel of the story itself. This quest for explanations of the uncanny finds its best expression in the wonderful scene in which the five men are seated in a circle testing out theories of what might have happened to cause Nowalingu to disappear. The camera swings (the technical term may be “pans” but that doesn’t quite capture the effect) from man to man, focusing on each in close-up as he proposes an explanation. 

It’s a thoroughly delightful moment in the movie. In part, I like it because it captures a quintessential vision of the Aboriginal process of discussion. The first attempts are not even attempts at all; pressed for an explanation, the men just shrug. Finally, a theory is proposed. Then another. Then the first explanation is considered, rejected, returned to. As the camera moves from face to face, the consensus builds until the fateful moment when all can agree that the stranger is at fault. The other reason that I like this scene so much is that it’s a superb example of the use of the camera in telling the tale, and as such represents the blending of yolngu and balanda techniques of creating a story. I think everyone agrees that this blending of the two worlds is what makes the film such a spectacular success. 

So in the end, I’m not just a boy entranced by the vision of a supernatural world, but I’ve become a part of it. I went to see this film fully expecting to be delighted by it, but it surpassed even my wildest dreams. 

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