Australian Screen

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Ten Canoes (2006)

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clip Two brothers face payback education content clip 3

Original classification rating: M. This clip chosen to be PG

Clip description

As the men prepare for a big lunch of magpie-geese, cooked in the canoes on the swamp, the narrator returns to the climax of the old story. Ridjimiraril (Crusoe Kurddal) and his brother Yeeralparil (Jamie Gulpilil) must stand and face the spears of another clan, in payback for Ridjimiraril’s crime.

Curator’s notes

This is one of the only parts of the film in which Rolf de Heer abandons the matter-of-fact realism he has used throughout. We hear a didgeridoo and the two men become opaque, like ghosts, as they dance to avoid the spears. He also uses slow motion, perhaps to contrast the speed of the spears, in the superb shot of the line of men throwing spears. Before and after this sequence, we get the men in the swamp, in black-and-white scenes of great tranquillity. The narrator decides to hurry the story along, because he knows we are impatient. The storytelling in the film has many levels, not just in time, but in the sophisticated way it addresses the audience.

Teacher’s notes

provided by The Le@rning FederationEducation Services Australia

This clip shows canoeists returning to camp after hunting for goose eggs. The narrator (David Gulpilil) resumes the parallel story of Ridjimiraril (Crusoe Kurddal), a Dreaming story set in the ancient present. Ridjimiraril and Yeeralparil (James Gulpilil) face payback from a neighbouring tribe and are shown dancing to avoid a volley of spears until Ridjimiraril is wounded. The clip cuts to the canoeists paddling downstream to return home. The ‘present’ is in black and white and the past is in colour. The canoeists speak in their Indigenous language and the clip is subtitled.

Educational value points

  • Ten Canoes is the first feature-length film made in Australian Indigenous languages. There are about 40 language groups in north-east Arnhem Land, and most Indigenous people in the region are multilingual. Most of the canoeists in the film are Ganalbingu speakers but Minygululu (Peter Minygululu) speaks Mandalpuyngu. A version of Ten Canoes was produced with a narration in the Mandalpuyngu language.
  • In a reversal of film convention, director Rolf de Heer depicts the past in colour, while the ‘present’, a time just prior to European contact, is in black and white. This black-and-white depiction was influenced by photographs taken by anthropologist Donald Thomson during a 1936–37 expedition to eastern Arnhem Land, while the colour sections suggest the importance of the past for Yolngu people. This device also helps to differentiate the two stories.
  • The spearing of Ridjimiraril is an example of a ritual known as 'makarrata’, which is a way to restore harmony between groups or individuals in dispute. The narrator acknowledges this when he says the other tribe were satisfied once the spearing had taken place. The form the makarrata takes is decided following careful negotiations between the Elders of the affected groups or tribes. The person facing makarrata can select a partner to join him in the ritual.
  • Traditional law requires that punishments are public and follow specific guidelines. Different weapons are used for different violations, and particular rituals are associated with each. For example, if a spear is used the person must approach from the front and inflict a wound in the leg or torso. However, one of the most severe punishments is banishment. In these and other ways Indigenous communities maintain social control and compliance with the law.
  • In Indigenous communities Elders use Dreaming stories to pass on to younger generations knowledge about the law that guides the community. Thus Minygululu tells his younger brother Dayindi a Dreaming story to warn him of the dangers of inappropriate love. In using a narrator, Elder David Gulpilil, to recount Minygululu’s telling of the story, the film replicates this form of instruction, becoming another medium through which to convey this knowledge.
  • In Ten Canoes the seamless interweaving of the various narrative strands is accomplished with the aid of the narrator, but also by the parallels between the two stories. These are stressed by having James Gulpilil play Yeeralparil and Dayindi, who both covet the third wife of their respective brothers. In using the same actors to play their corresponding characters in both time periods the film reinforces a sense of connection between the past and the present.
  • The Yolngu Elders saw Ten Canoes as a way of preserving and passing on their languages. At the time of European colonisation more than 700 different Indigenous languages and dialects were spoken in Australia, however, until the 1960s Indigenous people on missions were often discouraged or forbidden from speaking their own languages. A census in 1996 showed that 13 per cent of the Indigenous population spoke an Indigenous language or creole at home.
  • Yolngu Elder David Gulpilil, who narrates Ten Canoes, collaborated with director Rolf de Heer in developing the film. Gulpilil, who received an Australian Film Institute (AFI) award for Best Actor for his role in de Heer’s The Tracker (2002), was 15 years old when cast in Walkabout (1971), the film that launched his career. His other films include Storm Boy (1976), The Last Wave (1977), Crocodile Dundee (1986) and Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002).
  • Rolf de Heer, a director with a reputation for tackling ambitious and experimental film projects, was approached by David Gulpilil to make a film about his people while the two were working on The Tracker (2002). Ten Canoes, which de Heer co-directed with Peter Djigirr, scooped the 2006 AFI Awards, including those for best direction, best original screenplay and best cinematography. It has won numerous other awards both in Australia and overseas.

A group of hunters cook a big meal of magpie-geese in the canoes on the swamp. Whilst they are cooking a few other men approach in canoes. This section of the clip is in black-and-white, signifying that the story takes place in the more recent time period. The dialogue is subtitled.
Hunter 1 My goose got away.
Hunter 2 Got all the eggs though.
Narrator The goose-egg hunters come together to eat.
Hunter 1 Is the fire going yet?
Hunter 2 Almost.
Hunter 1 I could eat a whole goose.
Hunter 3 When can we cook?
Dayindi (rowing) Hey everybody! Are you all here?
Hunter 1 We’re about to start cooking.
Dayindi Is the fire burning?
Hunter 1 Nearly there!
Dayindi I’m looking forward to filling my stomach! I got a goose!
Narrator Dayindi is proud of his hunting. Minygululu will go on with the story when they are eating. We can’t wait that long because it was time for makarrata spears to start flying.

The vision changes to colour, signifying a switch to an older time period. In a clearing a line of men stand with spears at a distance from Ridjimiraril and his brother Yeeralparil. A group of onlookers sit off to the side under some trees. The men with spears begin throwing them at Ridjimiraril and Yeeralparil, who duck and weave to avoid them. A didgeridoo plays.
Narrator Ridjimiraril and Yeeralparil danced like ghosts between the spears. They danced so hard they were nearly invisible. The spears seemed to be passing right through them. The warriors from the other tribe threw their spears until their arms were getting tired. That’s how hard those two brothers were dancing. But Ridjimiraril was not a ghost. His legs were human and one spear too many came flying.
Ridjimiraril falls to the ground. A spear has entered his stomach. The men who are watching rise to their feet. The men from the other tribe dance in triumph.

The vision switches back-to-black. A group of men are paddling in their canoes.
Narrator The goose-egg hunting is nearly over for now. But there is still some of the story left for me to tell you. That one spear too many had hit Ridjimiraril right in his guts. He was injured, alright. But not so bad that he should die. The other tribe – they were satisfied. The law had been followed. Justice had been done.

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