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TEN CANOES (director/writer: Rolf de Heer; screenwriters: Peter Djigirr/the people of Ramingining; cinematographer: Ian Jones; editor: Tania Nehme; music: Richard Birrinbirrin/Peter Minygululu/Billy Black/John Nudumul/Mark Muruwirri; cast: Crusoe Kurddal (Ridjimiraril), Jamie Dayindi Gulpilil Dalaithngu (Dayindi/Yeeralparil), Richard Birrinbirrin (Birrinbirrin), Peter Minygululu (Minygululu), Frances Djulibing (Nowalingu), David Gulpilil Ridjimiraril Dalaithngu (the Storyteller), Sonia Djarrabalminym (Banalandju), Cassandra Malangarri Baker (Munandjarra), Philip Gudthaykudthay (The Sorcerer); Runtime: 91; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Rolf de Heer/Julie Ryan; Palm Pictures; 2006-Australia-in English and in various Yolngu Aboriginal dialects with English subtitles)
“The fable is a fascinating ethnographic document that satisfies just like any well told story.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A lively mixture of anthropology and entertainment in the noted Dutch-born Australian filmmaker Rolf de Heer’s (“Bad Boy Bubby”/”The Tracker “/”Dingo”) Ten Canoes; he’s also the cowriter with Peter Djigirr. It’s set in the Arnhem Land of Australia’s Northern Territory. The entire cast is made up of non-acting Aborigines, except for the actor storyteller David Gulpilil who wryly narrates in English. The ancient fable has the feel of an authentic oral cultural history passed on in a timely way by a real storyteller. It should be noted that the Aborigines make no distinction between fiction and reality.

It begins in the Australian outback forest outside the village, among ten tribesmen out to collect bark for building canoes. The older brother Minygululu (Peter Minygululu), head of his clan, teaches his horny single younger brother Dayindi (Jamie Gulpilil Dalaithngu), who has eyes for his brother’s youngest third wife, how to collect bark and an important life lesson through a timeless ancient fable. The fable continues as the tribesmen go to the swamp and in their canoes hunt for goose eggs. While the fable is told the other men work, gossip, talk about women and clown around. Meanwhile the women back in the village do their chores and squabble.

The fable begins with a warrior, Ridjimiraril (Crusoe Kurddal), who it seems also has a restless younger brother, Yeeralparil (also Jamie Gulpilil Dalaithngu), and three wives. Wife number one Banalandju (Sonia Djarrabalminym) is wise and patient, the second wife Nowalingu (Frances Djulibing) is jealous and flirtatious, while the youngest third wife, Munandjarra (Cassandra Malangarri Baker), is quiet and the most beautiful. Yeeralparil pines for Munandjarra.

The tale of, maybe a thousand years ago, tells of the noble warrior Ridjimiraril’s domestic situation (making it seem like a study in polygamy) and includes the telling of every aspect of the ancestors’ life —from the big-bellied, honey-loving village elder Birrinbirrin’s (Richard Birrinbirrin) to the ominous appearance of a stranger (Philip Gudthaykudthay), who was thought to be a sorcerer, to soon Nowalingu’s inexplicable disappearance one day from the village that was somehow linked to the stranger. It includes the telling of the ancient way used as the law to payback an injustice and of the tragic consequences for Ridjimiraril, who was overcome by an evil spirit.

It’s an amusing, wise and colorful story about human nature (especially about jealousy and desire), distrust, and tragedy. The fable is a fascinating ethnographic document that satisfies just like any well told story.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”