Blurring the lines

February 8, 2013

A review of 10 canoes (2006), a film directed by Rolf de Heer

Ten_canoesWhilst walking down Swanston Street in Melbourne, in the direction of Flinders Street Station on a pleasant September afternoon, one may encounter one of the sparse contemporary visions of Indigenous Australia. The vision is often first encountered when one has arrived at the foot of St. Paul’s Cathedral. It is definitely not the image that a tourist would expect of these people; nowhere is a didgeridoo to be seen, nor is there a re-enactment of a traditional corroboree (dancing ceremony) for the quick indulgence of tourist exoticism to be found. Rather one sees a bunch of shaggy-haired, smelly, badly dressed, foul-mouthed, chain-smoking, beer or whisky drinking people. Not only men, but also women, and even some children. The colour of their skin, and their version of the Australian accent are clear indicators that these people are Indigenous Australians.

The above is the primary image that most Australians have of the Indigenous population, especially in the big cities. They are always in some way connected to trouble; take the just released music video clip of Aboriginal Rugby Champion-turned professional boxer-turned hip hop artist Anthony ‘The Man’ Mundine, which shows Indigenous Australians in Redfern (a central Aboriginal hotspot in Sydney) burning the Union Jack and photos of John Howard (the current Prime Minister of Australia). It is either this rather extreme vision that is often indulged by Australians, or that of another extreme, that of the uncivilised natives. This latter extreme however is mostly only encountered at the numerous tourist traps that line the Eastern Coast or the centre of the island-continent.
Australian director Rolf de Heer has attempted with his latest film, 2006’s 10 Canoes, to address the contemporary image of Indigenous Australia. De Heer has been making films in Australia since the late 1980’s, but 10 Canoes is only the second film that de Heer has used to explore Australia’s relationship with its Indigenous peoples, as well as with its chequered past. Before 10 Canoes came 2002’s The Tracker, a film set in outback Australia, and which was de Heer’s ninth film. Previous to The Tracker, de Heer has focussed his attention on making low-budget films, and both The Tracker and 10 Canoes have also kept true to his low-budget film-making philosophy.
What makes de Heer able to keep his films at such a low cost is his ability to take an integrated approach to movie-making. On most of his films, de Heer is both writer, director and producer. He also works with a very small crew and cast, with a lot of overlap between various positions in the movie-making process.
Sticking to low budgets is not the only film-making convention that de Heer is renowned for. His films have been praised for their exploratory usage of sound, often incorporating experimental sound design in his collaboratory work. De Heer often shoots his films sequentially and works very closely with a sound collaborater on set, meaning that he is able to get his actors to often act in sync with a particular piece of sound in mind. De Heer has also experimented with visual effects. The usage of paintings in The Tracker to depict scenes of extreme screen violence was quite original in its portrayal. When the violence against the Indigenous people was depicted, de Heer decided to illustrate this violence by using the oil paintings of Peter Coad, instead of the use of actual film.
The idea for The Tracker came whilst shooting footage in the outback for the film Dingo (1991). A week was spent during the filming of Dingo with a small cast and crew; both slept under the stars at night. So productive was this week, and not to mention cheap, that de Heer thought how amazing it would be if he could film an entire film in this format. Thus, the idea for The Tracker was born.
De Heer’s reasoning behind focussing on the Indigenous issue in this film came from trying to find a particular story to suit the film-shooting concept that de Heer had in mind. The story evolved into a four man cast set in 19th century outback Australia, where three white men, one of them a local police officer, use an Aboriginal tracker (actor David Gulpilil) to hunt down another Aboriginal man who had been accused of raping one of the local white women. The Tracker is a brilliant film, in particular for its portrayal of the often extremely violent relationship between the Anglo-Celtic settlers and the Indigenous population. This brutal relationship is even to this day often hushed over.
Around the same time as The Tracker, another important film for Australian film-making was released. Phillip Noyce’s Rabbit Proof Fence (2002) dealt with one of the more troubling and unsettling issues of Australia’s past, that of the ‘Stolen Generation’. This term describes the thousands of half- or quarter-caste Aboriginal children that were removed from their Aboriginal mothers and placed into white-Australian families. Many of these children are now the Indigenous people that one is to find sitting outside of the Cathedral in Melbourne.
The practice began from very early on in Australia’s European history in an attempt to breed out Aboriginality, and was official state policy for the first half of the 20th century. The practice continued until the early 1970’s and only became fully brought to public attention with 1997’s Bringing Them Home report. Rabbit Proof Fence told the story of three girls who had been removed from their mother’s care during the 1930s and were taken to a holding settlement. From there they escaped and attempted to make their way back home to their mother. The film was to play a big role in the debate concerning the Stolen Generation.
Both The Tracker and Rabbit Proof Fence place the Indigenous Australian issue in the foreground of contemporary Australian film, and both films portray the negative side of the story. The Tracker depicts the main Indigenous character in the film, simply called the Tracker, most of the time as bound by chains that are controlled by the racist white leader of the pack. The Tracker is leading the group of white men, who all sit on horses, by foot through the outback after the renegade black man. He is forced to endure the atrocities of the white man that he witnesses, such as the massacre of an innocent group of Indigenous people.
Rabbit Proof Fence tells the harsh story of three Indigenous children trying to find their mother after having been taken away from her by the white Australian government. Both stories need to be told, but there is another side to Aboriginal Australia that exists. This side is shown in de Heer’s 10 Canoes.
10 Canoes is set in northern Australia, in Central Arnhem Land, and recounts a story when the Indigenous people of Australia were still living in their traditional manner. There are two stories that are being told throughout the film; one is distinguished from the other through the usage of black and white film for one story, and colour film for another. The black and white film is representative of a time 80 or 90 years ago, whilst the colour film is representative of the Dreamtime, the time that in traditional Aboriginal culture represents the beginning of the beginning, a time where the world was created by the giant Goanna.
Much of the inspiration for the film stems from the anthropological work of Donald Thomson, who took a series of black and white photographs in Central Arnhem Land in the 1930s. This collection of photos is one of the best collections of Indigenous Australia, and was the inspiration behind many of the shots in the black and white part of the film, such as the shot where the ten canoeists are poling through the swampland on the hunt for goose eggs.
There is a narrator that speaks English throughout the film, and he is identified early on as The Storyteller. The Storyteller is played by David Gulpilil, who played the Tracker in The Tracker, and a similar role in Rabbit Proof Fence as well. The Storyteller narrates an account of his ancestors, those characters of the black and white part of the film who are on the goose.
The geese live in the swamp lands, and in order for the men to get to the geese they must build canoes from the bark of local trees. Whilst following the men on their preparation for the hunt, the Storyteller informs us that the eldest of the men has found out that his younger brother is very keen on the youngest of his three wives. The old man addresses his brother, and tells him a tale from the Dreamtime, in order to teach him the Tribal Law and how to follow the right way.
The movie then switches to colour, and we begin to watch the enactment of the tale being told. It shows another younger brother courting the younger wife of his elder brother. Both stories interweave through one another and the Storyteller helps keep the flow of the film on track.
The Thomson photographs are important to the Ganalbingu people, especially in the making of this film. They play a central role in everyday life in the Ganalbingu clans, with most people being able to identify themselves with one of the men in the photographs, claiming this one as an uncle, another as a father and so forth.
A similar relationship to the photos is found with the casting for the film. The clan leaders didn’t want actors to play the characters in the film unless they had a legitimate connection in terms of clan or moiety. So the actors had to be related in some way to the characters that they were going to play. This was interesting method of selecting characters for the film, as it meant that the Ganalbingu people themselves were in charge of selecting the actors that would be in the film. Another interesting factor was the language. Except for the lines of the Storyteller, the entire film is acted in the local Ganalbingu language, meaning that the people were also heavily involved in writing the script.
Not only were the Ganalbingu people concerned in selecting the actors and writing the script, but they were also instrumental in developing the traditional artefacts that were needed for the film. Spears, digging tools, baskets and the sort were developed, not to mention the canoes.
Making the canoes for the film was a highly emotional event for the Ganalbingu people. The knowledge needed to make these canoes had almost faded out, with only a few elderly men vaguely remembering how it was done. Through experimentation, and the use of the original Thomson photographs, the knowledge on how to rebuild the canoes was rediscovered, called a ‘small miracle’ by those who had witnessed its re-creation.
Rediscovering lost knowledge, with building the canoes, has stimulated a cultural renewal for the Ganalbingu people. A number of side projects have popped up after the filming of 10 Canoes. The 11 Canoes project is an attempt to teach the youth from Ramingining (the area where the film was shot) how to shoot and edit video footage, whilst the 14 Canoes project is recreating an album with the original Thomson photos and their contemporary equivalents. There is a revived interest in the tradition ways for the Yolngu people.
The choice of Gulpilil to play the role of the Storyteller cannot be ignored. He is easily the most highly decorated and recognisable of Indigenous actors, and by placing him as the Storyteller, de Heer in fact is telling three stories, not just two. The third story is the current discussion between contemporary Australia and its relationship to the original inhabitants.
The Storyteller even uses modern narrative conventions; his opening lines are ‘Once upon a time, in a land far, far away’, followed by a burst of laughter. This classic way of beginning English fairy tales contrasts with the rest of the film. After his laughter subsides, the Storyteller continues, directly speaking to his contemporary audience, ‘it’s not your story, it’s my story, a story like you’ve never seen before…’ By introducing the movie in such a fashion, the Storyteller places the film directly within the current discourse concerning contemporary Indigenous Australia.
This is not just a film about traditional Aboriginal culture, it is a story that still exists today; it shows that there are Aboriginal tales that are yet to be told. Tales that do not need to focus on the negative associations of the people, nor cater to the tourist demand for exoticism and which challenge the vision of the drunk and unemployed Aboriginals in the centre of town.
No, 10 Canoes shows that there are still Aboriginal stories to be told that can blur the lines between past, present and future, and these are certainly stories that need to be heard by anybody who currently claims to call themselves Australian.