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.