The cosmology of the Yasmu people is an entirely different cosmology than ours. The universe is a different place, the way of thinking is therefore different, and the language, apart from being structurally different, describes different things. Ours is a language of classification and categorization, theirs is a language of connection and unity. Everything is all one. There is no notion of fiction in their cosmology, and telling a story out of order, as we were having to do in making our film, makes no sense.
— Rolf de Heer, The Balanda and the Bark Canoes: The Making of Ten Canoes
This land began in the beginning.
— The Storyteller (David Gulpilil Ridjimiraril Dalaithngu), Ten Canoes
Ten Canoes begins with a joke. Tellingly, it’s a joke that both crosses and targets cultural divides. As the camera passes over Australian forest, thriving and timeless, David Gulpilil Ridjimiraril Dalaithngu narrates, “Once upon a time, in a land far, far away…” And then he stops. “Nah not like that, I’m only joking.” The pause is brief, for, as he says, “I am going to tell you a story.” This story is not yours, though that charming first invocation might make you think so. Neither is it only his or restricted to a particular time and place, say, the primeval forest and river where canoes carry hunters in search of magpie geese eggs. It’s a story that transcends and specifies, jokes and teaches. It’s a story “like you never seen before.”
And it’s a story you know, considering desire and jealousy, fear of otherness and self-affirming judgments. The movie, which won a Special Jury Prize at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival, as well as the Best Film prize from the Australian Film Institute, is touted as the first in an Australian Aboriginal language (that is, various Yolngu Aboriginal dialects). The result of careful and sometimes contentious collaboration between de Heer and the Ramingining Aboriginal community, Ten Canoes follows two related tales, one recounted within the other. As a group of tribesmen set about building the titular canoes, old Minygululu (Peter Minygululu) tells the story of Ridjimiraril (Crusoe Kurddal), whose younger brother, Yeeralparil (Jamie Dayindi Gulpilil Dalaithngu, David’s son), desires one of Ridjimiraril’s wives. Minygululu deems his tale especially pertinent, because an unmarried man in his party, Dayindi (also Jamie Dayindi Gulpilil Dalaithngu), is coveting Minygululu’s youngest wife. “Maybe,” he says, “the story will help you live proper way.”
Shot in black and white, the Minygululu section cuts into the full-color Ridjimiraril section intermittently, to reestablish the differences between the times, but also to underline their connections. De Heer was inspired in part by a famous 1930s black and white photo of 10 canoeists taken by anthropologist Donald Thomson, and the film raises questions concerning the means and ends of documentation and narration. While the telling and retelling of stories — of brothers, of wives, of strangers — helps to secure their significance, their meanings might remain fluid, particular to needs and moments. Just so, the stories told by photos or films, though they appear fixed, a recording that might be unchanged, are also changeable, produced in certain moments and subject to interpretations. Minygululu’s story, embedded in Gulpilil’s story, with both embedded in the film shot and directed by de Heer, is perpetually becoming itself.
Crusoe Kurrdal as Ridjimiraril in TEN CANOES.
Gloriously wide and lush (cinematography by Ian Jones), all the stories are focused through men, of course, a point made clear enough in a series of penis jokes (“You’re laughing at me because you think my prick has gone limp,” etc.), as well as the emphasis on self-definition by possession of women. Yeeralparil watches Ridjimiraril’s “number three wife… the beautiful one,” Munandjarra (Cassandra Malangarri Baker), he is transformed, feeling both guilty and emboldened, at times unable to stop himself from walking near her, just to look. The older wives keep her close, anticipating trouble among their unsubtle men. Little does any of them suspect that another (though similar) trouble will come from outside, in the form of the Stranger (Michael Dawu).
“He had the smell of someone very dangerous,” says Minygululu, even as the tribesmen within his story suspect that he covers his loins because he has something to hide (“Never trust a man with a small prick”). Their suspicions are further aroused when Ridjimiraril’s second wife Nowalingu (Frances Djulibing) disappears. As they imagine the various explanations for her sudden absence — she ran away, she was kidnapped — the camera pans around the circle of men, their contemplations of dire scenarios made visible in brief, urgent-seeming scenes. Repeatedly, the camera pulls out from the closing shot, so Nowalingu recedes, her smallness signaling her status as both incidental and crucial to the men’s self-concerns.
As they wonder what happened and what to do, their questions are at once moral and philosophical, narcissistic and historicized. Should they seek vengeance? How or on whom? Should they believe someone who happens by, saying he’s sighted her many months after the loss? And how do they contend with the assertions of meaning and fact by the Sorcerer (Philip Gudthaykudthay), who shows up in Gulpilil’s story almost by accident, after the fat-belled Birrinbirrin (Richard Birrinbirrin) mentions him (“Ah yes,” sighs Gulpilil, “I nearly forgot that sorcerer. He was old and very powerful, he had good magic and bad magic. He lived by himself to keep his magic secret”). Nowalingu is more emblematic than individual (in this, she is somewhat meta, as all characters in the film mean beyond themselves). And yet her absence drives the men to actions, mistakes as well as apparently valiant essays.
It hardly seems incidental that a revenge effort goes wrong, leading to yet another desire for payback, the second communal, a ceremony called makarrata. Here the ceremony leads to dire, poetic, and oddly inspirational consequences, and perhaps some lessons, especially when it’s revealed to be unnecessary, or at least premised on faulty information. But the question of choice is central to Ten Canoes. As thoughtful and self-reflective and conscious of history as the tribesmen appear to be, they make choices that can be wrong and irrational, sophisticated and cyclical. As they prepare for battles or hunts, deaths or other reckonings, the film shows their bodies altered (strikingly, with white body paint) and energies focused (in close-ups and full-body shots, taut or at ease). A study of community and ritual, Ten Canoes celebrates as it contemplates, emphasizing the fact that this collection of stories, Gulpilil’s story in its many layers, is seen.
At the movie’s start, Gulpilil describes his own beginning. “I come from a water hole,” he says, “I was looking like a little fish in my water hole… When I die, I’ll go back to my water hole. I’ll be waiting here like a little fish, waiting to be born again.” The cycles he describes suggest that men’s choices only lead back to others — choices, lives, beginnings. “Now you’ve seen my story,” he says, “not like your story, but a good story all the same.” And how you see it: that may be your story.