Ten Canoes

UK release date: 1 June 2007

cast list

Crusoe Kurdall
Jamie Gulpilil
Richard Birrinbirrin
Peter Djigirr

directed by
Rolf de Heer
Peter Djigirr

Narrated (by the great David Gulpilil) and subtitled in English from the aboriginal Ganalbingu language, this film has been showered with critical acclaim across the globe. Directed by Dutch/Australian veteran Rolf de Heer (The Tracker and Alexandra’s Project) and Peter Djigirr this unusual gem manages to include a vast amount of historical and parochial detail without at any point seeming as though it would be more at home on the Discovery Channel.

It’s the distant past, and young Dayindi (Gulpilil’s son Jamie) covets one of the wives of his older brother. As tribal law is in danger of being broken, and to teach him the proper way, he is taken on a hunting expedition and told a story from the mythical past, a story of forbidden love, kidnapping, sorcery, mayhem and disastrous revenge. When the story is over, the hunters return home. Dayindi has learnt his lesson, and when opportunity presents itself, he declines…maybe some day he will have a wife, but it won’t be someone else’s. Gulpilil junior plays the lead role in both threads of this tale, although their seamless interlacing means the viewer is never in danger of becoming confused.

Assembled from among the population of the town of Raminginning in Australia’s Northern Territory, the vast majority of the cast had never acted before and, in all honesty, it’s a little obvious. There are moments where the acting is so wooden it makes Orlando Bloom look positively animated. However, this somehow makes it more effective. A cast of professionals dealing with a plot that isn’t a million miles from some of the more outlandish Western soaps would undoubtedly have overdone it.

Its rustic simplicity is one of its most endearing traits, yet another part of this film’s charm. Even though it’s dealing with issues in the distant path and legend everything manages to be strangely relevant and appropriate for today’s audience. Men still over-react, women still nag and squabble and people still laugh at jokes about small willies and poo. Despite all the advances in their surroundings, the fact that people are remarkably similar across time and across cultures seems to be one of the film’s most prominent themes.

In an age when everyone has become used to monumental sets and vast amounts of CGI imagery, it’s a definite breath of fresh air to actually just have the story itself to concentrate on. Despite some noticeable flaws it still manages to be strangely entrancing, stripped down to its bare essentials and proving that a lot of the things we’ve come to regard as essential are completely disposable. This is an example of movie-making and storytelling at its finest and, whilst it’s never going to be popular with the movie-going masses, it’s a must for any film aficionado.

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