Review: Ten Canoes

Ten Canoes

Ten Canoes is more homily than film, an educational exaltation of Australia’s Aboriginal past. The jovial, almost corny narration by David Gulpilil Ridjimiraril Dalaithngu is rooted in the oral history of the country’s original inhabitants, recalling the day-to-day experience of a tribe from a millennium ago. Directed by Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigirr, the film is an intricately layered jangle of melodramas and anecdotes, suggesting the dexterous stream of consciousness of William Faulkner. The action toggles back-and-forth between a black-and-white framing device concerning the building of the titular canoes and color scenes of a tribe whose members struggle with the sexual agency of their men, the strange disappearance of one woman, and an elder’s Poohish fixation with honey. Serene and reverent, the film lacks for aesthetic splendor, though a scene in which men dodge a flurry of flying spears is a wonderful evocation of a people’s spiritual devotion. The camera moves through the landscape like a gust of wind blowing in from the past, eventually settling into a funk of repetitive zooms in and out of the increasingly stale action. To the credit of the filmmakers, they aren’t exactly after visual innovation. As the nameless narrator reminds us, this is not a story like ours, but a good story none the same—and one that is apparently meant to “help” us. Meaning the film will be fixture in Australian elementary schools for years to come.

Score: 
 Cast: Crusoe Kurddal, Jamie Gulpilil, Richard Birrinbirrin, Peter Djigirr, Peter Minygululu, Frances Djulibing, David Gulpilil, Johnny Buniyira  Director: Rolf de Heer, Peter Djigirr  Screenwriter: Rolf de Heer  Distributor: Palm Pictures  Running Time: 90 min  Rating: NR  Year: 2006  Buy: Video

Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez is the co-founder of Slant Magazine. His writing has also appeared in The Village Voice and The Los Angeles Times. He’s a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, the Critics Choice Association, and the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association.

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