'Ten Canoes': A Buoyant Aboriginal Original

Myth and the vast span of history underpin
Myth and the vast span of history underpin "Ten Canoes," but the timelessness of its humor and humanity distinguish the Australian film. (Palm Pictures)
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 8, 2007

Sometimes all it takes to bridge the chasm of eons is a little humor.

"Ten Canoes," an Aborigine fable set in three periods, spanning the present to prehistory, doesn't just address the eternal verities of myth -- love, jealousy, hatred and those other moral hallmarks of humankind. It's also cheekily aware of its contemporary audience.

Amid profound statements about, for instance, the lasting wisdom of our ancestors, "Ten Canoes" is never too far from a joke about flatulence or penis size. Its mixture of wisdom and whimsy -- exemplified by the movie's unnamed and occasionally cheeky narrator -- makes this Australian movie feel as timeless as it is timely. And instead of feeling dutifully cultural as we immerse ourselves in this story, we're genuinely intrigued, touched and even amused.

Our narrative journey -- courtesy of our Aboriginal storyteller (David Gulpilil, best known from 1971's "Walkabout") -- begins in Australia a thousand years ago, where a romantic entanglement has just taken place. A young Aborigine named Dayindi (Jamie Gulpilil) has fallen in love (or in lust, perhaps) with the youngest wife of his older brother, Minygululu (Peter Minygululu). According to tribal law, all Minygululu's wives will become Dayindi's when the elder sibling dies. But Dayindi's desire has no patience. And he has ample reason to believe Nowalingu (Frances Djulibing) -- the young wife in question-- shares his urgent ardor.

Oral tradition being the science, history and all-around schooling of the time, Minygululu tells a story to set his young brother straight. His fable -- the story is set at the dawn of man's time -- weaves a tale of similar circumstances, centered on a proud, aging warrior named Ridjimiraril (Crusoe Kurddal), his third (and youngest) wife and a younger brother (also played by Jamie Gulpilil), who also coveted his brother's wife. Got all that?

The movie, which Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigirr directed, has an almost documentary realism thanks to the participation of the cast, most of whom are the indigenous residents of Ramingining in northern Australia. As the actors perform daily tasks such as the stripping and soaking of a particular bark for the eponymous canoes, the body painting of their dead, or the dances they perform for those deceased members joining the afterlife, we can feel the palpable connections between them and their ancestors.

Unlike the 1980 comedy "The Gods Must Be Crazy," in which natives of the Kalahari desert were exploited for visual slapstick, "Ten Canoes" presents its characters as members of a complex society where the rule of law is paramount; they are not God's naked brown children, painted and nose-pierced for our superior delectation. And as we watch how they solve problems -- not with ooga-booga mysticism but time-honored rules and regulations learned from the bounties, secrets and wisdom of nature, we realize that "Ten Canoes" is more than a charming, mythical story about Aborigines. It's about civilization.

Ten Canoes (90 minutes at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is unrated and contains nudity and mild profanity. In English and Yolngu with subtitles.

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