Ten Canoes

I went to the Opening Night of the Sydney Film Festival where the film, “Ten Canoes” was shown.

The film’s significance is three-fold: it relies on a non-linerar story telling model; it’s the first feature film almost entirely spoken (with subtitles) in an indigenous language; and there are no white people in this movie. As a result, the film escapes one of the usual conventions (and weaknesses) of films about Indigenous Australians. In having no need to examine issues associated with black and white Australians coming together (or being in conflict), the film makes a bold statement about the occupancy of Australia over thousands of years. Unlike films like “Rabbit Proof Fence”, this is not a film for white Australians to feel guilty about, as they just don’t figure within the film’s framework.

At it’s basic plotline level, this is a love story dealing with the story of a young man in love with the youngest of his brother’s three wives. As he struggles with his place as a younger man in his community, he is told a parable of sorts of another young man in the same situation to give him an insight into why he must wait, and why he must gain patience.

Both the “modern” and the ancient stories are told with the same actors. But because the story is sometimes told in a non-linear way, and because the film is shot in both black and white, it took me a little while to understand how the story was being told. It wasn’t until maybe one-third of the way through the film that I was able to understand it on the different layers upon which it was being told. I wonder if, with repeated viewings, the story might take on new layers, as is the case with Aboriginal stories, or am I, perhaps, reading too much into it?

One of the most beautiful aspects of this film is the narration provided by David Gulpilil. Combining humour, warmth, and intelligence, Gulpilil makes this story both compelling and accessible.

The landscape of Arnhem Land is also beautifully filmed. From the crocodile infested swamps, to the stone country, to the vast scrub flatness, I was literally taken there by the film. Although I have never been to Arnhem Land, I’ve come close, having been to the top end of the Northern Territory a couple of times. It was nice to be taken back there by the film, and to recognise the meaning of phrases like “stone country” and to understand the significance of crocodiles and wetlands.

It would have been easy, though, just to let the landscape overtake the film, and that’s perhaps why much of it is in black and white, re-emphasising the importance of the story.

After the movie, we went to the Opening Night Party which was terrific. Lots of champagne, more prawns than I thought existed, and a chance to catch up with some people I haven’t seen for a while including one who is seeing thirty-eight films at the SFF.

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