As an aerial camera glides over the landscape of Arnhem Land, full of verdant trees and waterways teeming with life, a voice with a distinctly Australian lilt begins a familiar phrase "Once upon a time, in a land far, far away" before he breaks into the sardonic cackle of a well-practiced jokester.
"It's not your story, it's my story," he soon asserts, "a story like you've never seen before." And he's right.
Ten Canoes is an intoxicating look at the pre-colonial world of Australia's aboriginal people that never falls into the staid ethnography of a National Geographic project. Director Rolf de Heer (The Quiet Room, The Tracker) seems to have simply wandered onto a timeless landscape and captured the inner workings of a tribal community.
He never treats the characters as "others" who need to be explained, or portrays them as relics of a long-gone past. Everyone in Ten Canoes is gloriously alive, full of humor and expectation, part of a continuum that extends to that voice, belonging to indigenous performer David Gulpilil (Walkabout, The Last Wave, Rabbit-Proof Fence). Ten Canoes is beautifully rendered; nothing seems encumbered by artifice.
The primary narrative follows aboriginal men on a goose egg hunt in the Arafura Swamp. The men's leader (Peter Minygululu) is distressed at the attention his younger brother (Jamie Gulpilil, David's son) is paying to his third wife. So as they strip bark from inland trees and construct canoes to navigate the alligator rich swamp, Minygululu begins relaying a story of their ancestors, one with obvious parallels.
These scenes are shot in a silver-tinged black and white, but when the story Minygululu tells is visualized, it's in the rich color palette of the opening sequence. Here, the response of tribal head Ridjimiraril (Crusoe Kurddal) to a stranger's arrival and the disappearance of a wife leads to unexpected and tragic changes. De Heer slides easily between these stories with the aid of Gulpilil's engaging narration.
Certainly, Ten Canoes is a model of cross-cultural respect and cooperation between the white crew and indigenous performers in the Northern Territory community of Ramingining. What makes it great is that there's no deification or demonizing, just "a good story."
"This land began in the beginning," Gulpilil says, and Ten Canoes makes it feel like it still exists just beyond that patch of trees on the horizon.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) at 7 p.m., Thursday, July 19; 7 and 9:30 p.m. on Saturday, July 21, and at 4 and 7 p.m. on Sunday, July 22. Call 313-833-3237.
Serena Donadoni writes about film and culture for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].