Aboriginal Time

ten_canoes.jpgA tale within a tale within a tale: Ten Canoes is all about narrative. But for all its complexity of structure, the tale itself lacks drama. In fact, the viewer at the end may even feel hijacked by a sort of aboriginal shaggy dog story. Writer/director/producer Rolf de Heer, who was born in Holland but migrated to Australia in 1959, is considered one of Australia’s leading filmmakers. Set in a swamp area, surrounded by crocodiles, leeches, and mosquitoes, Ten Canoes is his eleventh feature. He used local men of the Yolngu people as actors and they helped inform the film with their ceremonies and customs. What makes this film original is the attempt to really get inside the aboriginal world. Not only are all the characters aboriginal, so are the actors and the narrator. There is no white world frame, and that is rare.

The film opens with a narrator talking to us as the camera pans a dense green landscape, with insect and bird sounds filling the air. The voice tells us that we will hear "something of my people and my land." And what we hear is two stories, one set in the early twentieth century, and another set "at the beginning," which could mean thousands of years ago. The time sense is felt, not measured by western centuries and numbers.

The earlier stories are told in the Ganalbingu language with English subtitles, although the storyteller (David Gulpilli) speaks to us in contemporary Aussie English. The scenes from the early twentieth century are shot in black and white (like old photos from the period—which apparently were part of de Heer’s inspiration), while the very distant past is shot in color—the ancestors somehow being the most alive characters. These levels of communication and time switches create a purposeful confusion of time and place. All we ultimately know is that we are with a group of men in a tribal culture, going about their daily business of hunting and walking and talking.

The stories both revolve around a younger brother’s desire for one of the wives of his much older brother, tales of "the wrong feeling," as it is labeled, and the ancient one is being told for the benefit of the younger brother. The aboriginal sense is that the story will “help him to live the proper way.”

Whether it is a thousand years ago or one hundred years ago, the issue is the same: young men cannot marry until they are properly settled in the tribe, while successful older men have two or three wives, and the youngest of these wives might be younger than the desirous brother. It is a situation rife with potential betrayal. But whether it is what they call “the long ago time” or more recently, these men have a way of talking with each other and trying to behave in ways that won’t hurt the tribal unit. Often an older wife is looking out to keep a younger one from straying. Everyone is aware of everyone else.

It’s an earthy culture, with many jokes about sex and defecation. Actually, one’s turds could prove dangerous if they come into the hands of a stranger. Dark magic can be performed with a stolen turd.

Traditional aboriginal music is performed, tales weave back and forth in time, and men ride in canoes hunting for goose eggs. A wife disappears (not the young beauty, although not the old one either); the men go hunt for her. A mysterious stranger comes and goes (has he kidnapped the wife?), and since he arrives with his penis covered, he is not to be trusted. There is a paradisial quality to this simple—but physically demanding—life. Or, at least, there is a deep innocence.

The film is rather slow for an American’s taste, perhaps. It recreates the boredom and redundancy of an earlier culture. No one is in a rush. As David Gulpill, the narrator, said of the film, "All I did when they showed me the film and the film started, I start to cry…. I remember those days, I remember…. thanks to Rolf, what he done for my people and my people’s story and a true Australian story, fair dinkum." - Victoria Sullivan

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Ms. Sullivan is a poet and playwright who lives in Manhattan and has a little cabin outside of Woodstock, NY. When not brooding, she is generally traveling, writing, or staring at the trees. She also loves to laugh.

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