Directed by: Peter Djigirr, Rolf de Heer
Written by:Rolf de Heer
Starring: Richard Birrinbirrin, Johnny Buniyira, Peter Djigirr, Frances Djulibing, David Gulpilil, Jame Gulpilil
Released: June 29, 2006
Grade: A-

In 2002, director Rolf de Heer made The Tracker.  It was a terrific Australian film which was nominated at the AFI Awards for best picture.  As a member of the AFI, I voted for The Tracker but it lost the top prize to Rabbit-Proof Fence.  The good news from the evening was that star David Gulpilil won the AFI Award for best actor.

What I didn’t know at the time was that another great film was in the works.  Gulpilil suggested to de Heer that he shoot a film in Ramingining, an Aboriginal community located near the northern tip of the Northern Territory.  After much thought and collaboration, a screenplay was written by de Heer and the end result is Ten Canoes.

Two stories are told in this film.  The first is of Dayindi, a young man who has developed a crush on a wife of Minygululu.  On a goose egg hunting expedition, he is taken aside by Minygululu and told an ancient tale so that he can see the error of his ways.

This is where the second story begins.  Set hundreds of year before, it begins with a stranger arriving at a small village.  He is looking to trade magical objects and the scared townsfolk soon send him away.  Not long after, the wife of an elder statesman goes missing and the stranger becomes the lead suspect.  The tribesmen want revenge but they may be getting themselves into even deeper trouble…

Ten Canoes wasn’t an easy film to make.  The actors in the film speak Ganalbingu, an Aboriginal dialect.  De Heer needed translators to help explain to the cast what they were supposed to be doing and saying.  The other major problem is that everyone in Ramingining wanted to be involved!  There were heated discussions as to which people should be cast and what elements of the Aboriginal lifestyle should be shown.

Interwoven within the film are some beautiful shots of the Australian landscape.  At the film’s premiere in Brisbane, de Heer spoke about how tough some of those shots were.  At one point, he was standing in a swamp with water up to his waist.  This may not sound difficult but keep in mind that a crocodile spotter was sitting with his gun high atop a nearby tree.

In the words of narrator David Gulpilil, this is a film “like you have never seen before”.  On the other side of the world, at the lucrative Cannes Film Festival, many agreed.  In the Un Certain Regard category (the secondary competition), Ten Canoes won a special jury prize.  I can’t speak for the jury but I know that I liked its unique narrative and absorbing insight into Aboriginal culture.