Ten Canoes

Once upon a time…

In celebration of the great David Gulpilil, who just left our mortal plane and is hopefully rejoining his ancestors in the Eternal Dreaming, we bring you the greatest film he ever was a part of: Ten Canoes.

Ten Canoes tells a legitimate Aboriginal tale, turns it into cinema (not exactly an Aboriginal medium,) and tells it beautifully. Gulpili co-wrote and narrates this tale, though the actual directing chores fell on the great Rolf De Heer, who is definitely not Aboriginal either. While our revisionist society might scoff at the fact that the film wasn’t directed by an actual indigenous person, kudos go to De Heer for using his status to give voice to this powerful story and culture that would have otherwise remained silent. It’s a wonderful collaboration.

The Aboriginal cast are all non-actors, and the story of these ten canoes is mythical. De Heer bounces between color and black-and-white as he tells a tale within a tale, cleverly defying expectation by using color to represent the distant past and black-and-white to represent today. Little details like that abound; it is such a seemingly simple story that you might not notice how innovative the storytelling is, but that freshness makes Ten Canoes a classic.

De Heer’s camera rarely stops moving- we are constantly in motion, sometimes a distant observer, sometimes front-and-center in (literally) someone’s face. And while they story is, in some ways, mythical, it’s also very funny and real- we get a genuine feel for daily Aboriginal life between women fighting for the same man or guys teasing each other about their small penises. It’s not documentary, it’s not really anthropology, either- and yet this fictional tale captures the truth about these people better than any documentary could.

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