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Evelyn Hartogh – “Retrieving Histories” Ten Canoes: Directed by Peter Djigirr and Rolf de Heer

“Retrieving Histories”

Ten Canoes: Directed by Peter Djigirr and Rolf de Heer.
Cast includes David Gulpilil, Richard Birrinbirrin, Jamie Gulpilil and Frances Djulibing, Filmed entirely on location in Arnhem Land, Australia.
A Vertigo Productions/Fandango Australia production financed by the Film Finance Corporation, the South Australian Film Corporation, the Adelaide Film Festival and SBS Independent, and supported by Bula’bula Arts Aboriginal Corporation. Released in Australia 29 June 2006.

The Dutch Down Under1606-2006: Co-ordinating Author Nonja Peters, University of Western Australia Press: Crawley, Western Australia, 2006.

By Evelyn Hartogh

Ten Canoes, the first Australian film in an Indigenous language, recently won the Special Jury Prize at the Cannes International Film Festival. The movie is unique in several important ways; not only is it a rare cinematic depiction of traditional Indigenous lives but it also was created in consultation and co-operation with the Yolngu people of the Northern Territory’s Arnhem Land. The film manages to balance both traditional Indigenous story telling methods and the dramatic structure which film-going audiences have come to expect. Dutch born director Rolf De Heer (Bad Boy Bubby, The Tracker) developed the movie with legendary Indigenous Australian actor, dancer and Australia Medal recipient David Gulpilil (The Proposition, The Tracker, Rabbit Proof Fence, Walkabout) who was initially inspired by a series of black and white photographs of the Yolngu that were taken in the 1930s by anthropologist Dr Donald Thompson. The photos provided the basis for a framing story in the film about the ancestors constructing bark canoes for magpie geese egg gathering in the Arafura Swamp. It is in the course of the magpie goose egg gathering that the main story of the movie is told, as an elder relates a story of the ancient ancestors to a younger man.

The main story is shown in colour and dramatic tension is increased by the moments when the film returns to the goose egg gatherers and the younger man’s impatience and anticipation of the story’s direction. The goose egg gathering story, which is a story of storytelling itself, is shown in black and white and reflects the content of Thompson’s photos, many of which depict many traditional activities that are no longer practised, due to the massacres, mistreatment and exploitation of the Yolngu peoples by the white invaders.   Although initially David Gulpilil wanted the movie to climax with these devastating conflicts, the story that eventually emerged is more concerned with honouring the history of his people prior to the white invasion. The traditional methods of building bark canoes had to be learned again by the cast, which was comprised of the descendents of the people in Thompson’s photographs. The film ended up being inspiring and life-affirming for the Indigenous community in Ramingining, bringing them back in touch with a history and culture which the white invaders had attempted to destroy.

A series of related projects sprang up during the film’s development including: Eleven Canoes that involved the young people of Ramingining in making video documentaries and developing and improving the media course at the Ramingining School; Twelve Canoes which is a website project about the environment, culture and people of Ramingining; Thirteen Canoes, an art exhibition; Fourteen Canoes, a book including the original Thompson photographs; Fifteen Canoes, a music conservation project; and many more projects which marry traditional knowledge with new technology (   All of these projects, in participation with Ramingining Aboriginal Artists’ collective Bulu’bula Arts, demonstrate the degree to which Indigenous Australians have been forced to rebuild their culture, while they are surrounded by negative stereotypes imposed by mainstream culture which act to deter a community’s ability to feel in control of their lives.

This movie demonstrates great compassion in the current context of John Howard’s refusal to acknowledge and apologise for past atrocities committed against Indigenous Australians including the white invaders’ role in stolen land, stolen children and stolen wages. What Ten Canoes shows is not only a way of living that the white invasion has tried to destroy but also the highly sophisticated ethical system of Indigenous groups, a binding factor for communities which is integral to their morale and sense of belonging. Popular misconceptions about Indigenous Australians tend to ignore their ability to function as successful groups and convey complex philosophical lessons in their storytelling. The positive message of this film, namely that despite the abuse by white people many stories have managed to survive, demonstrates the strength and resilience of Indigenous culture in the face of overwhelming persecution and exploitation.

The motivation for the story told in Ten Canoes comes from the need for a younger man to understand the consequences of his desires, and what may result should he choose to act upon these desires. As the group of men head off to the swamp to make canoes and collect eggs, they tease the young man Dayindi (Jamie Gulpilil, son of the narrator and co-writer David Gulpilil) about his crush on the wife of his elder brother Minygululu. Instead of chastising Dayindi, or simply telling him his desires are wrong, Minygululu tells a story of the ancients that reflects the young man’s current situation. The story, of course, deals with another young man Yeeralparil (also played by Jamie Gulpilil) who covets the youngest wife of his elder brother, and the multiple conflicts and tragedies that result from him attempting to defy the rules of conduct in his clan. This inner main story is told in an Indigenous language via the ancestors’ story of goose egg hunting, while that goose egg story is guided by David Gulpilil’s narration, making the narrative structure of the film a series of layers, not unlike the way Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is constructed. However, instead of being about a outsider travelling down a river and conveying both observations and the stories that have been heard, this is a story told by the insiders who desire to preserve not only their traditions but also their dignity.

The ancients’ story involves a rendering of traditional life, namely the social organization of the Ganalbingu (magpie goose people) clan including the different camps for young men, young women and the main camp of the adults and married couples. Yeeralparil’s desire for his brother Ridjimiraril’s wife is obvious to the clan. The elder wives ensure they are kept apart, lest Yeeralparil disrupts the social structure causing estrangement from his clan and therefore his death. What Dayindi learns from the story of the ancients is that his older brother’s life is more complex and demanding than he had initially perceived because his brother cannot just enjoy the youth and beauty of his youngest wife, but must also ensure the happiness and survival of his older, wiser wives as well. Envy is revealed to be a shortsighted and ignorant response to judging one’s life against another’s and the story also conveys the notion that the benefits of marriage are enmeshed with responsibilities that must be met before the privileges can be enjoyed. In the course of the main story one of Ridjimiraril’s wives disappears and the clan suspects she has been kidnapped by a neighbouring clan because of the recent visit of a stranger who was not entirely trusted by the group. The appearance of another stranger leads Ridjimiraril to suspect the clan is under threat of more kidnappings and he spears and murders the man before realising he is not the same stranger who appeared earlier. This murder triggers traditional payback by the stranger’s clan who demand the law is upheld because they have lost a valuable membe
Yerralparil joins his brother as the oth
er clan uses their lawful right to throw spears to injure or kill the murderer or his nominated payback partner. Yerralparil knows that because he is younger he has a better chance of avoiding the spears, and more importantly to him, that if his older brother Ridjimiraril dies he will inherit his wives. Ridjimiraril is speared and the other clan is satisfied that the law has been upheld. As Ridjimiraril dies, his missing wife returns and she mourns her husband as he does his final death dance. This sequence of events is catalysed by envy, competitiveness, and suspicion, within the clan, whose disruptive influences are interpreted by their sorcerer as caused by a bad spirit. Indeed it is with a sense of bad spiritedness that such emotions cause tragedy and death in the clan and Dayindi learns that desiring to trade lives with another man can have far reaching consequences for the entire clan. What this story ultimately conveys is that an individual’s actions affect the entire group to which they belong, not just an individual’s life.

On the surface, this film may appear to play into the current fashion for the more ‘exotic’ elements of Indigenous culture such as the traditional art, dance, storytelling, cultural practices and crafts. However, the story’s theme of the consequences of envy and assumptions about other people’s lives, tells a deeply political message. Not only does the story show an approach to morality that integrates history with the development of ethics, but this depiction of Indigenous Australians also highlights the internalised racism generated by the stereotypes favoured by the mainstream media. The dominant images of Indigenous Australians are the extremes of the urban unemployed with drug and alcohol problems, or a patronising ‘noble savage’ approach which infantilises and simplifies a complex culture and virtually ignores the bloodshed wrought by the whites. In contrast Ten Canoes offers an ancient story that not only has resonances in today’s oppressive climate, but also is told in a way that situates the story as travelling down through the people and therefore connecting them with a past which has largely been romanticised or vilified by white culture.

The theme of envy is particularly pertinent considering the Howard government’s stripping away of funding to social services that act to support Indigenous communities that despite being the traditional owners of Australia, are virtually excluded from participation in mainstream culture and have had not only their country taken from them, but the wealth generated by Australia’s resources taken from them as well. Despite this continual theft there remains a widespread notion that Indigenous people live on ‘hand-outs’ and that their disproportionate representation in the prison system points to inherent flaws in their culture rather than persistent persecution by the white legal system. The content of Ten Canoes can be read as suggesting that Australia’s treatment of the Indigenous population not only affects them, but also affects the entire Australian community by encouraging envy, ignorance and divisiveness.

This film also is a watershed in incorporating the film’s subjects in the very creation of the story. Not only are the cast directly descended from the characters in the film, the actors were chosen according to their current kinship ties rather than by the audition process. Within the Yolngu there are internal divisions of Yirritja and Dhua that in turn also have their own sub-sections, and the kinship system for example prohibits marriage of a Yirritja man to a Yirritja women, with reference as well to the subsections these people belong to. In casting Ten Canoes, the community’s kinship system was respected by ensuring that the kinship relationships of characters conformed to the kinship relationships of the actors. Thus the movie in many ways reflects the current trend of ‘reality television’ – in a far greater way than such shows as the tasteless Survivor for example.

Survivor is good case in point regarding the actual lack of basis in reality in much ‘reality’ television. The stereotypical ‘exotic’ locations and the rich western contestants on the show act to perpetuate the history of European invaders as brave pioneers and also make light of the prevalence of third world poverty. The ‘contestants’ are depicted as brave and resourceful but, in actuality, they are simply taking an adventure holiday and can return at any time to their comfortable life in the rich first world. This inherent hypocrisy in Survivor was brilliantly exposed in a recent episode of (co-creator of Seinfeld) Larry David’s show Curb Your Enthusiasm when a ‘survivor’ was invited to a dinner party. Larry David then decides to invite an elderly Jewish friend who had survived a Nazi concentration camp in World War II, thinking the other ‘survivor’ attending had a similar history. The other guest was actually from the TV show Survivor and showed an amazing lack of perspective, and a massive sense of entitlement, by claiming their own experiences on the TV show were equal to the experiences of the Nazi concentration camp survivor. This is done for comic effect, but this storyline does highlight the difference between real ‘survival’ and the child’s play of such TV shows. While the contestants go through mild inconveniences, millions of Indigenous people in both Australia and the third world face a daily life of struggle and survival that does not earn them fame and fortune and is not something to be easily escaped.

While Ten Canoes shows a traditional lifestyle which would not be easy for many urbanised Indigenous Australians to return to, it does show that lost knowledge can be regained and there is much for the traditional owners to draw from in re-establishing dormant cultural practices. It is ironic that a white man’s photographs can provide the basis for reviving and celebrating the skills and daily lives of the Yolngu in Arnhem Land. Even more ironic is a Dutch director at the helm of Ten Canoes, since the Yolngu word for white person is ‘Balanda’ which comes from ‘Hollander’ as the Dutch were the first to have contact with the Yolngu.

2006 marks the 400th anniversary of Dutch contact with Australia and Nonja Peters, the Director of the Migration, Ethnicity, Refugees and Citizenship (MERC) Research Unit at the Curtin University of Technology in Western Australia, has been the co-ordinating author in a collection of essays entitled The Dutch Down Under, 1606-2006. Arnhem Land itself takes its name from the voyages in 1623 of the sailing ship Arnhem and the mapping of what the captain believed to be a series of islands. In the book, references to Dutch encounters with the Indigenous population of Australia are sparse at best and tend to gloss over instances of violence, describing them in generalisations such as, ‘what contact was made, nearly always led to negative experiences on both sides’ (22). The specifics of these ‘negative experiences’ are not elaborated, while the contribution of Dutch ‘explorers’ to European ‘discovery’ of Australia is discussed in depth. The contributors make much of the fact that the Dutch were the first Europeans to settle in Australia (often due to being shipwrecked or being cast off their ship) and that evidence for this is based in instances of Indigenous people with fairer skin, fair hair, European facial features and the genetic diseases common to Europeans, as well as the similarity between many Dutch words and words in Indigenous languages (50).   The Indigenous language Nhanda, for example, is claimed to be contain 16% of Dutch words (49). Reports of European agricultural methods being used by Indigenous Australians in the early nineteenth century are also cited as suggesting Dutch co-habitation with local communities in many parts of Australia. Peters’ book is mainly an exercise in diplomacy and an attempt to redress the perceived lack of credit given to
the Dutch contribution t
o the colonisation (invasion) of Australia. The European mistreatment of indigenous people in Australia is placed firmly in the hands of the British and the most direct reference to this is in a cultural comparison between the Dutch and the Australians:

‘In both histories, as there probably are in all national histories, there is darker side: the slave trade in the case of the Dutch, the genocidal strategies against its indigenous peoples in the case of Australia.’ (221)

The impression in The Dutch Down Under is that despite ‘negative experiences’ the Dutch interaction with Indigenous Australians was peaceful and friendly for the most part and that they did not undertake the ‘genocidal strategies’ of later European immigrants. One of the most interesting linguistic comparisons is in the word ‘plokeman’ which in the Indigenous language of Watjandi means ‘blood brother’ and in Dutch means ‘scavenger’ (49). While these two meanings are only mentioned to further the case for the Dutch being the first Europeans to live in Australia, it is not hard to consider the implications of the notion of a ‘scavenger brother’ who takes any food, land or people they perceive as unowned or unguarded.

The Yolngu word for whites, ‘Balanda’, derived from ‘Hollander’, while not even being mentioned in The Dutch Down Under offers more evidence of the Dutch being most probably the earliest Europeans to encounter Indigenous Australians. Although the book is an interesting and informative study of Dutch immigration into Australia, the contributors display a conspicuous desire to distance themselves from any of Australia’s ‘genocidal strategies’ and interpret Dutch ‘explorers’ as benign pioneers and settlers during the colonisation (invasion) of Australia. However, it must be recalled that David Gulpilil’s early concept for the story of Ten Canoes involved incorporating a climax of one of the many historical massacres of many Yolngu by the Balanda.

Both the Dutch Down Under and Ten Canoes expose a great deal in what they leave unsaid. It is virtually impossible for the Dutch to lay claim to all the early exploration and colonisation of Australia without acknowledging the extent and impact of their ‘negative experiences’ with the Indigenous population. Nor is it possible to watch Ten Canoes without acknowledging that the history that is depicted in the film is largely unknown to most Australians, because it comprises many practices that have been dormant for almost a hundred years. Fortunately for Rolf de Heer and his Balanda crew the ability to be on the look out for crocodiles is still an ever-present skill among the Yolngu. While the Balandas stood in the swamp filming and working to bring this indigenous story to the world, the Yolngu made sure the Balandas made it out of the Arafura Swamp with all their limbs intact. Again the Yolngu showed an understanding that each individual’s actions will affect the entire group and that compassion brings far greater rewards than envy or distrust.

Evelyn Hartogh is a freelance writer and performance artist with a Masters in Creative Writing (University of Queensland 2002) and a Masters in Women’s Studies (Griffith University 1997). She writes about movies, TV and literature for LOTL, The Australian Women’s Book Review, Queensland Pride newspaper and Bizoo Her website is located at

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