No matter what transpires between now and the day Oscar nominations are announced, it’s unlikely a more impressive film than Ten Canoes will be released in this country. Sadly, because its story is told in a language other than English and there are no recognizable stars, this remarkable Australian export will go virtually unseen by those who vote on such things. Worse, because Ten Canoes looks like a documentary, but isn’t about penguins, few audiences have had an opportunity to see it.
Rolf de Heer’s film dramatizes the process by which one Aboriginal fable has been passed from one distant generation to a far more contemporary one, while also retaining its relevance and ability to impress. The setting for Ten Canoes is the green and swampy Yolngu homeland near the continent’s northern coast. Narrated in English by a lighthearted griot, Ten Canoes marks the passage of time by regularly shifting between vibrant color and an almost sepia-tinged black-and-white. An elder, identified as Storyteller, is the human conduit through which the fable is passed from the mythic past to a more obscure present. All of the onscreen characters speak in their native language.
Storyteller is played by the great Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil (Walkabout, The Last Wave), who tempted de Heer by showing him a photograph taken in the mid-1930s by anthropologist Donald Thomson. It captured a group of 10 Yolngu men in handmade canoes, hunting for goose eggs in a crocodile-infested swamp.
Just as Burden of Dreams and Hearts of Darkness documented just how unpredictable and thrilling filmmaking can be under extreme conditions, the making-of featurettes included with the bonus package reveal how Ten Canoes always seemed to exist on the brink of chaos. The production was a disaster waiting to happen. None of that drama is revealed in the final product, however. Few American directors ever will face the conditions experienced by de Heer and his cast and crew, let alone return with a picture that’s half as entertaining and of such immense cultural importance.