Ten Canoes Review

“Once upon a time, in a land far far away…” Our narrator, David Gulpilil, begins the film with these words, then bursts out laughing. This sets the tone for Ten Canoes – no self-important historical epic, this. Co-written by director Rolf de Heer with the people of Ramingining, and co-directed by Peter Djigirr, this is a story of those people’s ancestors.

We’re in Arnhem Land, in Australian’s Northern Territory, a very long time ago, and after the opening credits we’re in black and white. Minygululu (Peter Minygululu) is leading a group of men upriver for a goose-egg hunt in the crocodile-infested Arafura Wetlands. Minygululu has noticed that the youngest of the party, Dayindi (David Gulpilil) has his eye on the third of Minygululu’s wives. As this is a potential breach of tribal law, Minygululu tells Dayindi a story of his own ancestors, a cautionary tale of a young man, Yeeralparil (also Jamie Gulpilil) who desires one of the wives of his older brother Ridjimiraril (Crusoe Kurddal). This story (in colour) is told as the days pass.

Ten Canoes is a unique film, told entirely from the Aboriginals’ perspective. The film tells stories within stories, shot through with moments of drama and an infectious earthy humour. The dialogue is in the Ganalbingu dialect (the stranger speaks in Djinung) with English subtitles and, in the theatrical version, an English voiceover narration from David Gulpilil. Gulpilil, who had starred for Rolf de Heer previously in The Tracker in 2002, was the instigator of the project. De Heer collaborated closely with the Ramingining people in generating the script, and most of the cast are first-time actors. The film has a look of considerable authenticity, helped no end by Ian Jones’s camerawork. The look of the film is inspired by the photographs by Donald Thomson, an anthropologist who visited Arnhem Land in the mid-1930s and was the first white man to witness the native tribes there. Some of Thomson’s photographs are reproduced as shots in the film.

Rolf de Heer is a director who does not make the same film twice. He’s much less known in the UK than many of his compatriots, probably because of his twelve cinema features to date, this is only the third to have been released here, festival showings apart. One characteristic of many of his films, is a “naïve” look at the world, whether its from the eyes of a man who has spent his first thirty-six years locked away (Bad Boy Bubby), or an actual child (The Quiet Room) or a disabled woman (Dance Me To My Song). Given the circumstances of making Ten Canoes, de Heer’s shooting style is often very simple, often introducing characters with portrait-like close-ups. This works well as these people have fascinating faces.

Ten Canoes won six Australian Film Institute Awards, for Best Film (defeating Candy, Jindabyne and Kenny), Direction, Original Screenplay, Cinematography, Sound and Editing. It was also nominated for its Production Design. To describe a film as “one of a kind” is a cliché (as are reviews that say what I’ve just said), but there really aren’t many films like this one. Gently paced but never dull, and often unexpectedly funny, it’s a glimpse into another world entirely and displays our common humanity, despite wide differences in culture.

Distributed by Palace Films via Madman Entertainment, this edition of Ten Canoes is released on two discs (a DVD-9 and a DVD-5) and is encoded for all regions.

There is some contention about the DVD transfer in this edition. It’s anamorphically enhanced, sharp, true to the colour scheme (my test was the blue of the river in the opening shots) that I saw in the cinema. The colour sequences – dominated by greens – are vibrant if occasionally a little soft. Shadow detail is very good. However, the film was shot in Super 35 and many sources give the original aspect ratio as 2.35:1, including the packaging of this very DVD. (Many of de Heer’s films are in Scope.) The DVD transfer is in the ratio of 1.78:1. On the other hand, I have seen Ten Canoes in the cinema and I can confirm that the version I saw was not in Scope. (It was in either 1.75:1 or 1.85:1, the nearest cinema ratios to 16:9, but was certainly not 2.35:1.) But just to muddy the waters further, I saw a digital projection in the cinema, and it is possible that 35mm prints are in Scope – though why the makers and distributors should want to distribute their film in different ratios is another question entirely. To add to the confusion, the theatrical trailer included on this DVD set is in 2.35:1. In the end, the DVD I watched replicated what I saw in the cinema, so I won’t dock any marks for it. If anyone could point towards a definitive source for this film’s intended aspect ratio – and I don’t mean the IMDB – then I will update this review accordingly. [UPDATE: Since this review was posted, I have received an email from a London cinema projectionist who confirms that the above is exactly the case. The film's ratio is 2.35:1 for 35mm prints but it would seem 1.78:1 for digital presentations - and also for this DVD.]

There are no problems with the soundtrack, which uses the surrounds quite a bit for ambience, less so for directional sound effects. The dialogue is always clear. There are three ways to watch this film, which you can select from the main menu: the theatrical version, in Aboriginal languages with English subtitles and narration, with an all-Aboriginal soundtrack subtitled or all-Aboriginal without subtitles. Both soundtracks are Dolby Digital 5.1. The packaging claims a DTS soundtrack, but there isn’t one on the disc.

The extras begin on Disc One, with three featurettes. “Making a Canoe” (25:44), “Building Huts” (8:16), “Making Spears” (12:19) are all subtitled “May 2005” and are 16:9 anamorphic. There is no narration on any of these: we simply watch the people of Ramingining perform the activities described in the titles. In addition, there are five short documentaries. As part of the filmmaking project, local students were taught video recording and editing so that they could make their own films, and these are some of the results: “Arnhem Weaving” (11:35), “Dolly Dolly” (3:37), “Long Neck Turtle Hunt” (8:11), “It’s a Drag” (1:55) and “Yolngu Culture” (3:25). All of these are in non-anamorphic 16:9, except “Long Neck Turtle Hunt”, which is anamorphic in a ratio of 2:1. All of this is interesting from an ethnographic point of view, but the lack of narration or context may well make many people’s mind wander.

The extras on Disc One are concluded with the theatrical trailer (1:57), which is anamorphic and (as indicated above) in a different ratio to the main feature. It does a good job of selling what cannot have been a surefire hit, even if you do have David Gulpilil narrating most of the film’s plot. “More from Palace Films” comprises three trailers for other releases: Kokoda, The Caterpillar Wish and Japanese Story.

Disc Two continues with some more extras. An aerial map of Arnhem Land (3:06) zooms in to Planet Earth from space, before selecting Australia, before finally landing in the village of Raminginging. “Thomson Time Photo Gallery” (4:10) is a stills slideshow with a difference, comparing shots taken by Donald Thomson in the mid-1930s with stills from the film, which were very much inspired by them. “People, Place and Ten Canoes” is another stills gallery, this time subdivided into sections dealing with each cast member. This is incredibly long (43:45) but it is subdivided into seventeen chapters and you can skip forward or back to the actor of your choice.

Two short interviews round off the extras. Peter Djigirr (4:06) speaks English with a heavy accent and is subtitled but is mostly quite understandable. He talks about white people destroying his people’s culture and he hopes that Ten Canoes will help future generations understand where they have come from. Rolf de Heer (3:52) is interviewed on set and is cut short because he has to go back to shoot, but he says some interesting things about the genesis of the project. Given the number of extras the set does have, you feel the lack of a commentary (especially as de Heer has proven himself a quite capable commentator in the past) and a conventional making-of documentary.

The disc is completed by “Madman Propaganda”, in other words four trailers for Madman releases: The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, Kenny, Tsotsi and Look Both Ways.

Ten Canoes is a film that doesn’t follow predictable routes and which deserves its success. Apart from the mystery of the aspect ratio, picture and sound quality are as they should be. As for the extras, despite having two discs to fill, they’re both too much and not really enough.

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