I’m usually left slightly anxious by those works of western filmmakers that take as their subjects the nature and stories of indigenous peoples. The potential for exploitation – artistic, commercial, moral – runs so deep in these instances of cultural intersection that it’s amazing such films don’t all turn out like the garishly insensate “Apocalypto” which, if not for its bloated running length, might have worked perfectly as part of a “Grindhouse“-style tribal-exploitation double bill. We can point to films like “Walkabout,” “Where the Green Ants Dream,” or “The Fast Runner” (interesting in how it adopts an Inuit media workshop ground-up approach) as genuine attempts to render the experience of an indigenous culture cinematically, but those are like needles in a haystack – more often you’ll find something like “Geronimo” instead.
Enter Dutch-born Australia-raised Rolf De Heer‘s “Ten Canoes” which casts its glance on the traditions of the Yolgnu peoples of Australia. De Heer’s a festival favorite (a Cannes and Venice regular) who hasn’t achieved a tremendous amount of notoriety in the States, so hopefully “Canoes,” a positive, nuanced representation of native culture, isn’t just a lucky exception to an otherwise unflattering rule. Instead of the worst cliches about noble natives invested with quasi-mystical powers, a deep relationship with the land, and the tendency to speak in Yoda-worthy riddles, De Heer’s Yolngu are conflicted, jealous, earnest, horny, and often terribly funny (especially around scatological themes) – in short, all too perfectly human. De Heer developed the screenplay in conjunction with the Yolngu community in Ramingining, on the northern tip of Australia, so this probably accounts for the sensitivity and richness of the experience.
De Heer’s intricate, but never convoluted, narrative layering finds David Gulpulli (from “Walkabout” and “The Last Wave” – he’s Australian cinema’s answer to Wes Studi) supplying gently comedic conversational narration throughout the film’s two major sections. The first, in crisp black-and-white and meant to evoke famous anthropological photographs taken by Dr. Donald Thompson in the thirties, follows Gulpulli’s son Jamie Dayindi as he embarks on his first goose hunting and canoe building experience with nine others from his village; the second, marked by lush nature photography that calls to mind both “The New World” and “The Wind Across the Everglades,” tracks Jamie Dayindi again as he adopts the role of Yeeralparil in a historical legend as it’s related to the present-Dayindi of the black-and-white sections. In both, the younger Gulpulli is single and interested in his older brother’s young and beautiful third wife. The legend, full of warring factions, mysticism, and sorcerers skirts the line of the expected tropes, but in the end, De Heer’s frame sets the color sections up as a surprising, hilarious cautionary tale about a covetous nature-the utterly deflating concluding joke undercuts the potentially staid, tentative traditionalist bent that’s often a hallmark in this arena. The best praise I could level at “Ten Canoes” is that it reminds me most of Ousmane Sembene‘s seminal historical fiction “Ceddo,” which felt at once ancient and wholly modern, a bridging of gaps – for all the differences between the viewers and those viewed, it was the kind of film that brought all involved in the experience just a hair closer.
Jeff Reichert is co-founder and editor of Reverse Shot and currently works for Magnolia Pictures.