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Set in northern Arnhem Land and in not one but two distant pasts, Ten Canoes is nevertheless easily accessible and surprisingly funny, and has already earned director Rolf de Heer an award from Cannes (Un Certain Regard jury prize) and accolades everywhere it’s screened. But it was unlike any other film in the making, de Heer tells Andrew L. Urban.

Rolf de Heer’s Ten Canoes, his third film (of 11 made) to be selected for the Cannes film festival, is without doubt the most arresting example of Australian filmmaking – an indigenous period comedy and morality tale, set in ancient northern Australia. It tells of a young man who covets his older brother’s youngest wife and is warned off by a story of a similar incident in the mythical past that led to much trouble, told to him by his brother during the days spent making bark canoes and gathering goose eggs in the swamp.

But the story didn’t spring to life ready to shoot, a couple of times the film looked doomed to be stillborn when one or another of the participants left the project, and the story telling cultures clashed over the fundamental nature of fictional filmmaking and crucial Aboriginal storytelling traditions.

"enthusiastic applause"

But the problems were all resolved and it did get made. The film had its World Premiere at the Adelaide Film Festival in March. At its Cannes festival screening (Un Certain Regard) on May 19, it was given something of a test by fire when projection problems caused an interruption to the screening. The full house stayed – and stayed quiet – and gave the film enthusiastic applause before thronging round the cast and crew who attended the screening. The full delegation numbered 40, and included producers, distributors, investors – and even South Australian Premier Mike Rann, who took possessive delight in his State being one of the key financial supporters of the film.

Spoken entirely in indigenous language, predominantly Ganalbingu (with English subtitles), it is narrated in (contemporary) English by David Gulpilil, who had been urging de Heer to make a film around the Ramingining area that is his traditional home, and who was the catalyst in identifying Donald Thomson’s famous and historic photographs of more than 70 years ago as the inspiration for the story – notably one of ten canoeists setting out to gather goose eggs in the swamp. The film’s ‘present’ is 1,000 years ago, and is shot in black and white, while the ancestral story is set even further in the mythical past, and shot in colour.

“I faced a number of problems, and this device sorted them all out in one fell swoop,” says de Heer. “Firstly, the Thomson photographs are culturally very important to the people – it’s their depicted history. So it was important to reflect that material in black and white. Those old times are idealised by the people and nothing bad happened then. They didn’t want to have negative things depicted. Which left me nowhere to go with Western drama, the essence of which is conflict. Also, I’m contracted to make a film in colour. Then I realised that in the mythical past, lots of stuff happened. Bad things, good things, funny things, people killing people …anything is possible. That formed the idea to have the story set in the mythical past shot in colour, but that is a story being told in the film’s present, which we would shoot in black and white…so we could all have our cake and eat it too.”

The film was made by a sort of collective of Aboriginals led by de Heer and co-directed by Ramingining local, Peter Djigirr, who also did some of the casting, which involved sensitive kinship issues among the Ylongu locals. The cast also helped build the sets and props, not least the ten traditional swamp canoes, reviving an ancient craft in the process.

Brian Rosen, CEO of the Film Finance Corporation which helped finance the film, says “Ten Canoes is a magical film that will shine a light on Australia’s past for all our community; but importantly, I believe international audiences will be fascinated and delighted by this view of our country – from a time long before white settlement. Rolf is a film maker who we believe has a unique view of our world combined with a pragmatic view that can match the production costs to reflect the potential audience reach - that balance is one of the key elements to creating a sustainable industry.”

But funny? That’s what you don’t expect from this film, yet funny it is, although there are moments of drama. The humour is character driven (and also woven into David Gulpilil’s contemporary narration), situation reliant and recognisably universal. The humanity of the characters is so immediate and recognisable, that the only reason to accept its period setting(s) is the accoutrements like tools, shelter and appearances. Besides, goose egg gathering is less practiced these days.

The English subtitles reveal a cheekiness retaining the humorous flavour of the dialogue. “The comedic tone developed first from my recognition that the film would appeal to a broader audience,” says de Heer, “and it was triggered by the fact that they [the Ylongu] are all quite funny among themselves, in a mischievous way, and there is a lot of laughter about things, even difficult situations. There is a spirit there which is a part of who they are; and they want themselves represented in the film, so that has to be part of it.”

"a secret reconciliation, held in public"

Gulpilil’s narration, which is from the perspective of the present day, is also replete with humour; Gulpilil shaped it to make the story – and its telling - his own. But this came only after he abruptly ended his association with the film during production, for reasons that Rolf de Heer puts down to inter-communal tensions “which I don’t know or want to know anything about.”

When de Heer tracked him down in Darwin after filming had been completed, Gulpilil readily accepted the notion of narrating the story. Little did the audience at the Adelaide World Premiere know that when Gulpilil walked up on stage to join the rest of the cast and crew to take a bow, it was a in fact a secret reconciliation, held in public.

Published June 29, 2006

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Rolf de Heer... onset


Ten Canoes Australian release: June 29, 2006

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