The Reeler

Reviews

May 31, 2007

Ten Canoes

Sneak attack on problems of ethnographic filmmaking fails to find its sea legs

Ethnographic filmmaking -- why bother? One moment you've "discovered" an under-documented part of the world and its people, the next you're an evil proto-colonial exploiter taking advantage of the defenseless. Probably a racist to boot. Rolf de Heer's Ten Canoes is evidence of a sneak attack around this problem, in both its production methods and their result. The whole thing has been scrupulously conceived at the instigation of David Gulpilil (who, thanks in large part to his appearance in Walkabout, is probably the world's most famous aborigine) and written, as the credits note, "in consultation with the people of Ramingining." The movie -- which comes with a host of attached side projects and goals for the Australian aborigine community -- is off the hook on the ambiguous intentionality issue.

Which also makes it more of a curious experiment than a functioning movie, adventurous if not quite successful storytelling. The best analogy will be familiar to those with any knowledge of the transcriptions of oral tales; I once read a Zuni legend with an apologetic footnote explaining that one particularly lengthy section is meant to be recited 17 times at sporadic intervals, but that here, one iteration would have to do. Like those texts, Ten Canoes is an imperfect translation of a lost experience. De Heer's main tasks are to showcase some lost customs of aboriginal life and to tell a story. Only one of these really comes through.

The narrator (Gulpilil) begins the film with "Once upon a time, in a land far away," before breaking into hysterical laughter. Our amiable host explains some of the creation mythology of the aborigines over color footage of a depopulated land, then takes us back to a framing story in black-and-white where a second storyteller (himself a product of the voice-over narrator) tells the real story, which reverts back to color. The double frame allows for different functions: The narrator serves as our friendly English-speaking bridge to a presumably alien culture; the black-and-white segment allows us to see how canoes are built; and the real story is told while building the canoes. Some of the “real” story is told by the narrator in the framing story, but most by Gulpilil’s voice-over. It’s less confusing than it sounds.

That the Yolngu actors in question hadn't built canoes in decades, and that recreating the process for the screen probably meant as much (or more) to them as it will for viewers is nice to know, but it hardly helps filmic drama. It's this recreation of a lost world that seems to be the real goal of the film; the actual proper story -- not introduced for a long time -- is a rambling, shaggy-dog affair in which the methods of the narrator take precedence over content. As the black-and-white storyteller (Peter Minygululu) unfolds his tale between the assembly of canoes, digressions overrule narrative: Each new character is introduced with a close-up of his or her face. Every time characters offer a theory as to what has happened or what to do, they get their very own flashback, this time in sepia.

De Heer's methods foreground the people, not the story. All as it should be in the real world, where the Yolngu people have the quite understandable wish to reclaim and preserve their cultural practices. But while this isn't quite a case of mealy-mouthed good sentiments leading to bad filmmaking, Ten Canoes is ultimately attempting the impossible: translating multi-day, leisurely storytelling intended to make work less boring into a 90-minute feature. Ten Canoes is probably a must for those fascinated by Australian aborigines, but on those -- rather than cinematic -- grounds only.



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