Writer/co-director Rolf de Heer‘s “Ten Canoes” (also directed by Peter Djigirr) has been praised both at home in Australia as well as abroad, taking a special jury prize in the Un Certain Regard section of Cannes as well as other nods from fests around the world. Set centuries ago and in mythical times, “Ten Canoes” is a “surreal tragi-comedy in the Ganalbingu language of the remote Arafura Swamp region of north-eastern Arnhem Land.” The film is the first major Australian feature film completely filmed in an indigenous Aboriginal language. “Ten Canoes” is currently playing in limited release via Palm Pictures.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?
I drifted into it. I happen to get a job at the Australian Broadcasting Commission, but it was a job as a storeman. [It had] nothing to do with making films [and I] had no intention of making a career out of that. The job was initially for two weeks, but seven years later, I was still there and had ended up in publicity which I hated. So, I had to find a way out, and at that stage, I thought: ‘well I have been in this business for seven years now, I might as well apply for film school,’ and that change everything. I knew within days of getting there that this is where I wanted to be. My film school had a very broad-based education, including history of cinema, and that sort of stuff broadened my interest. I used to go to movies a lot anyway, but it gave me a purer interest.
Are there other aspects of filmmaking that you would still like to explore?
Each film is a new exploration and one of the reasons for doing it is precisely that. So as long as there are still films I want to make there are still explorations I want to take.
Please talk about how the idea for “Ten Canoes” came about…
It came about through David Gulpilil who asked me a number of times over a period of years to come up to his tribal homeland and make a film with his people. Five years later, I started “Ten Canoes.”
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film, including your influences as well as your overall goals for the project.
1. Throw out every film making lesson I ever learned.
2. Always be completely patient meaning expect things to go wrong, but don’t think they are wrong, they just have gone “differently.”
3. Do everything to make [the production] a true collaboration. What [everyone] wanted was a film that they could show their children and say,’this is where you come from.’ But it was also to be a film that could play around the world so that people could understand something of Aboriginal culture and recognize it, value it. And I think that we largely succeeded.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making and securing distribution?
In developing and making the film, the biggest challenges were language because there is no one who speaks both Ganalbingu and English fluently. Also, Ganalbingu hasn’t been written, and it is a language with a completely different “cosmology” then our language. Many concepts are simply not translatable from one to the other.
The other challenges really was the conditions: the mosquitos, the leeches, the crocodiles, the heat, the mud, the lack of infrastructure.
As far as distribution, a degree of that was sorted out before we made the film and the film has sold to a number of territories around the world so that hasn’t been a problem.
How did the financing and casting for the film come together?
The financing happened very quickly and easily, the casting was unlike any film I have ever been involved with. The casting had to be correct according to the very complex kinship system that exists up there, meaning that the relationship between actors had to mirror the relationship on screen between the characters. And the kinship system is very specific about who is allowed to be in a relationship with who, and who is even allowed to talk to who. And so the casting was completely out of my control and it just happened as the community sorted itself out.
The kinship is so complex and so restrictive, that in the case of wife number three who had to have relationships with three people, we found who I think is the only person in the universe allowed to play this role and it took a lot of finding.
What are some of the creative influences that have had the biggest impact on you?
I’d say there are dozens of films of all sorts that really are the [biggest] influences. I don’t follow directors. I just look at films and every film I see is an influence of some sort. But there is no real direct thing that makes an impact in terms of the way I make my films. In the end, I would have to say my parents because they had the most influence on me until the age of seven, that’s when the most influence happens. I would have to say my parents.
What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?
I didn’t have a definition of independent film when I first started working, and I found my own way to be independent. “Independent” to me means, I let the financiers know roughly what I am going to do and how much money I need to do it. And then I am left completely alone to do it until I present the film–the finished film.
What are some of your all-time favorite films as well as recent favorite films?
“One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Slaughter House 5” a Hungarian film called “The Stud Farm,” and “Fearless” because they are great films–they move me, they take me into a world that I think is fantastic–they’re human!
Recent favorite films include “The Lives of Others,” which was the best film I saw last year.
What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?
You have to be mad to do it. And I mean that, there is a madness required to compete with the mass of people who want to be filmmakers. You have to work harder than anyone else, you have to be more committed than anyone else and don’t expect to get rich.
Please share an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of…
In a way I would have to say “Ten Canoes,” which is in some ways less my film then anything I have done, is also the one that makes me proudest. It was the most difficult one to make, the most sensitive. When I say sensitive I mean the sensitivities were the greatest–that is a better way to say it. In the end, I am most proud of my two daughters. They are such incredible people despite the fact that I have a mad career.