Natural-born deconstructionists, Aboriginal storytellers recount tales that both reveal and create the world. This essential mingling of life and narrative has attracted experimental-minded filmmakers, including Nicolas Roeg and Peter Weir. In their attempts to grapple with the Aboriginal idea of “dreamtime”—Walkabout and The Last Wave, respectively—both directors casted David Gulpilil, who played Aborigine characters with much wisdom to impart but little actual dialogue. Now an elder of Australian film, Gulpilil is chattier in Ten Canoes, in which he’s the puckish narrator. “Once upon a time,” he begins, then stops himself with a raucous laugh. “It’s not your story,” he amiably taunts, “it’s my story.”
That story begins with the cycle of life: Human souls are “little fishes” in a water hole until they swim into their mothers’ wombs. After death, they return to the water hole and wait for the process to begin again. This concept of life as a loop informs the film’s structure, which fits one story inside another. Gulpilil introduces 10 men who are headed to a swamp where they’ll fashion bark canoes and then gather goose eggs. To distinguish this story from the other one—and to pay homage to anthropologist Donald Thomson’s 1930s photograph of 10 Yolngu tribe canoeists, which inspired writer-director Rolf de Heer—it’s in black and white.
Minygululu (Peter Minygululu), who has three wives, leads the expedition. His younger brother, Dayindi, is new to such endeavors, and not-so-secretly besotted with Minygululu’s youngest wife. As they travel, the older man recounts a legend, set in prehistoric times. The premise is the same: Ridjimiraril (Crusoe Kurrdal) has three wives, and his younger brother Yeeralparil covets the youngest of them. This tale is in color but is linked by theme, culture, language, and an actor: Jamie Gulpilil, the narrator’s son, plays the younger brother in both episodes.
It’s possible that neither Dayindi nor Yeeralparil will ever find a wife, but should either’s older brother die, custom dictates that the younger sibling will inherit all three. In the subtropical jungles of northern Australia, death can take many forms, from poison to crocodiles. But Ridjimiraril is at greater risk than Minygululu, since he lives in a time of conflict with other tribes. The appearance of strangers always alarms the Yolngu, especially since their sorcerer warns that an outsider can use their shit to enchant them. That threat is averted, but after Ridjimiraril’s middle wife disappears, rumors spread that she’s been kidnapped by a nearby group. Ultimately, bloodshed occurs, albeit first by mistake and then under strict rules that are closer to a penalty kick than an all-out war.
As an attempt to convey a tribal legend via film, Ten Canoes resembles Zacharias Kunuk’s Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, an Inuit tale that also features magic and erotic jealousy. Unlike Kunuk, the Dutch-born de Heer is not a member of the community he’s representing. But he did develop this film with the Ramingining Aboriginal people, who are credited as co-writers. The movie’s cosmology and earthy humor must be true to them, although they can’t know any more than de Heer what life was like in Australia’s Northern Territory thousands of years ago.
Rendered in lush widescreen images by cinematographer Ian Jones, Ten Canoes is every bit as beautiful as Walkabout and The Last Wave. It is, however, substantially less mystical. As depicted by de Heer and his team of co-writers, the Aboriginal worldview is not metaphysical but matter-of-fact. That souls migrate in and out of water holes is simply true, no more consequential than the warning not to trust a man who covers his penis. Ultimately, the story of Ridjimiraril and Yeeralparil provides a moral that’s lighthearted and universal and underscored by Gulpilil’s hearty chortle. Ten Canoes lacks the complexity commonly associated with Aboriginal fables, but it has a fully developed sense of irony.