Friday, April 06, 2007

Ten Canoes (2006)

Ten Canoes (Rolf de Heer & Peter Djigirr, 2006)

The title is derived from a black and white photograph by Dr. Donald Thompson, an anthropologist who studied the aborigines of the Arafura Swamp in the mid 30's. The photograph which was shown to director Rolf de Heer by iconic aboriginal actor David Gulpilil showcases aboriginal men aboard canoes made out of the bark of trees, presumably on an expedition to hunt geese and their eggs.

The film, through the expert eyes of cinematographer Ian Jones, would mimic the serene beauty of those photographs. De Heer would make sure that there would be a still moment; a moment of understated simplistic beauty that can attest to the undervalued magnificence of this culture --- men atop makeshift platforms, a tense posture before the releasing of a hunting spear, men aboard their canoes patiently observing the swamp for geese or crocodiles.

The goosehunt would take a number of days and several men from different camps, presenting an opportunity to tell an ancient story. The story, about a warrior, his three wives, and his wife-less and jealous younger brother, is told from an older brother to his wife-less younger brother, who he suspects is jealous of his three wives. The story is patiently narrated; composed of sprinkles of native mythology yet more importantly, an invaluable lesson to the younger brother. Paced within their mundane hunt, de Heer visualizes the ancient tale in full color and from that tale, even mini-tales (stemming from the highly imaginative minds of the aborigines) burst into life.

Ten Canoes is undeniably gorgeous. The shifting from black and white to color, the convincing details of the Arafura Swamp, the rare portrait to this underappreciated culture --- all these are painted by de Heer with loving and respecting artistry. However, beyond the undeniably good filmmaking, is the even better storytelling. There would be times in the film wherein I would close my eyes, and satisfiedly digest David Gulpilil's jovial narration. The lack of visuals didn't hurt the experience as mixed with the atmospheric sound details (the insects, water, plants aural contributions) and the screenplay's method of appropriating the importance of oral tradition in storytelling would nonetheless complete everything. Ten Canoes is a film wherein the visuals are secondary or merely complementary to the narrative; it's quite very unique.

It is not exoticized; instead, the tale is appreciative of cultural differences. The narrator makes a joke right in the beginning, convincing us that the tale is from a faraway land and from long ago, and then recants by telling us that the story is not like that, but a story about his culture. There's a sense that in a world of cultures where everyone is given an opportunity to tell their respective stories, that representative from Aboriginal Australia chose to tell this one, not as a tale that would arouse mere curiosity or interest, but as a tale that would fit other worldy tales.

There's no arbitrary sense of invasion (as compared to other films that detail marginalized cultures --- like Mel Gibson's Apocalypto (2006) or even harmless tributes like Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North (1922) or much more recently Zacharias Kunuk's Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001)). Ten Canoes is a film that feels so natural in its setting, its methods, and its choices in storytelling that there's a sense of belonging, of a welcoming invitation to immerse oneself to the culture, and not being merely extraneous viewers.

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