Anthropology and entertainment are marvelously married in Rolf de Heer’s “Ten Canoes.” The first feature in an Australian Aboriginal language feels authentic to the core as it tells a cautionary tale set 1,000 years ago. Sticking closely to the convoluted patterns of Aboriginal oral history, pic is rendered accessible by the English narration of a storyteller who jovially assumes the role of cultural tour guide. World preemed at the Adelaide Arts Festival, “Ten Canoes” looks set for a prestige fest passage and wide arthouse exposure. Local release is skedded for June 1.
A venture into the challenging physical and emotional environments that have become de Heer’s trademark, “Ten Canoes” reps another distinctive outing for the helmer of “The Quiet Room” (1995), “Dance Me to My Song” (1998) and “Alexandra’s Project” (2003). For this multilayered morality play, de Heer has collaborated with the Ramingining Aboriginal community with the goal of representing a spoken art form dating back long before the continent’s recorded history.
In several respects, pic is similar to the Canadian Inuit feature, “Atanarjuat the Fast Runner” (2003), another first-of-its-kind native pic.
Over glorious aerial shots of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, an eloquent narration defines the deep spiritual connection between the land and its inhabitants. Promising “a story like you’ve never seen before,” the offscreen Storyteller (Aussie screen favorite David Gulpilil, billed here as David Gulpilil Ridjimiraril Dalaithngu) intones the staple “once upon a time in a land far, far away,” then chuckles and says, “I’m only joking.” Funny ploy allows auds to click into a different groove of tale-telling.
Framing device shot in B&W — inspired by photographs of anthropologist Donald Thomson in the mid-1930s — is a canoe-building expedition led by old Minygululu (Peter Minygululu). Minygululu is aware that Dayindi (Jamie Dayindi Gulpilil Dalaithngu, son of David Gulpilil) has designs on the youngest of Minygululu’s three wives and decides to set the youngster straight.
Action switches to color as the old man recalls a tale about warrior Ridjimiraril (Crusoe Kurddal), whose younger brother, Yeeralparil (also Jamie Dayindi Gulpilil Dalaithngu), desired one of Ridjimiraril’s wives.
This story is just the tip of a large catalog of backstories, sidestories, detours and digressions, all fleshed out to make the lesson clear.
While respect and understanding are uppermost, there’s nothing precious about “Ten Canoes.” Delightful humor includes various wives giving verbal stick to lazy husbands, the men joking about sexual performance, and a charming running gag about roly-poly elder Birrinbirrin (Richard Birrinbirrin) and his passion for honey.
On-screen cast members are all first-timers. They perform wonderfully with little or no clothing (and zero self-consciousness) under de Heer and his indigenous co-director, Peter Djiggir.
Gorgeous widescreen lensing by Ian Jones in croc-infested wetlands exudes the other-worldly aura of a Werner Herzog pic without any hint of travelogue. Rest of tech package is first class.