Ten Canoes (2006)

One hundred and fifty spears, ten canoes, three wives… trouble.

The Matriarch and I settled down to watch this Rolf de Heer movie after loving his latest, The King is Dead!

We’d had the DVD lying around for ages and it seemed the perfect time to get around to Ten Canoes, set in Arnhem land in a time before Aboriginal people made contact with whites.

The narrator tells the story of a group of men making bark canoes and hunting goose eggs. The leader of this group tells his young relative a story (which quickly seems to be shaping up as a cautionary tale) about a young man back in ancient days who longed for his brother’s wife.

The movie is entirely told in a subtitled indigenous dialect. A quick Google says it is Ganalbingu language, and if I had any presence of mind I would have retained the DVD cover to make sure. It’s worth getting this on DVD, because there are extensive and interesting-looking special features.

I’m immediately charmed by the story-within-a-story-within-a-story format. To me it seems to reflect Aboriginal culture itself, which apparently perceives time as a far less linear thing than does European culture.

Whether or not it’s intentionally significant, it’s innovative, and immediately gives the film a new way to communicate that the themes that run through each tale are linked.

It’s naturalistic in quintessential de Heer style, with all the hallmarks of painstaking research.

Yet at times it seems to relish drawing attention to the artifice that goes into the telling of the stories: not only through the three different stories, but by introducing the innermost story’s characters with a rundown each in which they stare awkwardly at the camera, occasionally giving a chuckle or embarrassed look to show they’re listening.

As well as being engaging, this gentle joke shared with the viewer reveals the characters’ humanity, a task that would be difficult when portraying people of an unfamiliar culture in long-ago time.

This emotional connection made the story hard-hitting, incredibly so – I cried, and cried, and cried. No spoilers, but jeez, it tore at my heart.

But I also laughed a lot. De Heer doesn’t seek to make the characters mysterious or venerate them. They’re just people. They have their fart jokes and their deep spiritual side just like everyone else.

What I love most about Rolf de Heer’s storytelling is – and you know I love action in my movies –  he can take his time about things.

He doesn’t have to pull punches in every shot. There’ s something about the way he tells a story that makes you enjoy the journey. He settles you down, he slows you, relaxes you into his own world. This is a rare talent in a filmmaker, and if you didn’t get it absolutely right it would be disastrous.

The tracker shows this trait off stunningly, to the best of my recollection, and to finish off the de Heer kick, we’ll definitely be watching that.

His is a beautiful, quiet way of telling a story and it brings me back to the whole notion of circularity. You’re not rushing towards something, you’re circling around it, getting ever closer to the heart of it, and yet in a way, the whole time, you’ve been there before.

It doesn’t reward impatience. The second storyteller, the lead goose-egg-hunter, tells his young relative he needs patience, and drags the story out for days. The narrator of their story tells the movie-watcher amusedly that he supposes they are impatient too, but finally takes pity on them and gets on with the end.

I wanted to know the end, but I felt patient. I was busy looking and seeing and thinking and feeling and noticing.

And the end, when it came, was just as unexpected as the rest.

Five stars!