Posted by: Mark Nielsen | September 27, 2011

Ten Canoes & the Aussies’ Cinematic Language of Nature

Australian indigenous actor Crusoe Kurddal, the hero of "Ten Canoes"

” The cosmology of the Yolngu people [Australian Northern Territory aborigines] is an entirely other cosmology than ours. Their universe is a different place. The way of thinking is therefore different, and the language –apart from being structurally different– describes different things. Ours [i.e. “balanda” or white] is a language of classification and categorization; theirs is a language of connection and unity. Everything is all one. [One?] There is no notion of fiction in their cosmology…”
 –writer/co-director Rolf de Heers, in the “Making of” documentary companion to the award-winning 2006 film Ten Canoes

I’ve been a frequent student of Australian films since I was in film school at Northwestern, studying the early films of such luminaries as Peter Weir and Bruce Beresford (and Mel Gibson, before he re-packaged himself as American… technically, he WAS born here, but he grew up down under).

In particular,  I became an early fan of the Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil, and the unique worldview of the indigenous people of Australia’s outback. So I picked up Ten Canoes on DVD at the library the other day, and was predictably impressed.

I can’t entirely explain what it is about that Aboriginal worldview that caught and held me in films like Weir and Gulpilil’s The Last Wave (1977), but I perceived a definite sense of “mystery” there: a spiritually-based awe, simplicity, and connection to Creation. I hesitate to engage in the “noble savage” sort of bull crap rhetoric some whites have used to co-opt or voyeuristically exploit native peoples. But that doesn’t mean I/we can’t learn from them and celebrate what they have to offer.

When one encounters cultures with a lingering sense-memory or collective unconscious that is still rooted in a pre-industrial sense of the natural order, the wisdom of these traditions cannot be denied. For one thing, “magic”, mysticism and the supernatural have been all but banished by our scientific age, even within Christianity for the most part (despite all our lip service about the Holy Spirit). On the other hand, within Native American (see Koyaanisqatsi for a Hopi spirituality), Aboriginal and similar traditional cultures, people often have no problem seeing beyond our first level of Western reality to the deeper realities and potentialities.

Nicholas Roeg’s Walkabout (1971) –generally considered a classic of international cinema — is the seminal film in this sub-genre. Films like 1970’s A Man Called Horse (set among the Sioux in the western U.S. in the 1800s), and even the South African comedy The Gods Must Be Crazy (1981), delved similarly into anthropology and culture clash issues. But most films in this arena lack the philosophical depth or visionary risk-taking that Roeg engaged in.  Walkabout started a number of creative types down the road of exploring such specific Aboriginal concepts as Dreamtime and ancient initiation rites. Gulpilil himself was only 16 when the film was made, and he barely spoke English! So we might say it is also a document of a “caught between” modern Aborigine, being initiated into the complexities of both Western culture and the even weirder world of filmmaking (which as we know plays by even more complicated rules than most Westerners are subject to).

The origin of  Ten Canoes was in an invitation by Gulpilil –who worked with de Heer on The Tracker (2002) — to come back to David’s home community in Arnhem Land and make a film with native non-actors– a film which might help them preserve some of their own ancient traditions and dignity before it all faded away in the harsh halogen light of modernity (and in many cases, poverty). David was originally slated to play a dual onscreen role, but for business reasons had to leave the project for awhile. However, he did add his wise, humorous, shaman-like Storyteller narration part in post-production several months later. 

David’s son Jamie (that’s him on the DVD cover) plays a major role in Ten Canoes, which was touted as the first film to be made entirely in the indigenous language of the Yolngu people (even though David narrates in English — not that I’m quibbling about that choice, as it makes us feel we have a guide or mediator who understands both cultures). For better or worse, David himself is probably recognizable to most American audiences through the original 1986 Crocodile Dundee film.

Here’s a photo of David, I think from that film, or possibly from Last Wave ten years earlier:

David Gulpilil – the “Sidney Poitier of Australia”

 As for Dundee… it is what it is, as they say. Sometimes serious cross-cultural ideas — especially in the realm of narrative comedy films — get dumbed-down for the masses. Nevertheless, if Paul Hogan’s Oscar-nominated Croc screenplay was the first step by which a new generation of Northern Hemisphere viewers at least had a chance of finding out about more authentic aspects of Aussie and Aboriginal culture, landscapes, and traditions, then it was mostly a good thing. Right? (Can you tell I’m trying to convince myself?)

Around the summer of 2002 (according to de Heer in the Ten Canoes DVD interview), there was a minor cinematic resurgence of  international interest in Aboriginal issues. In addition to his film The Tracker, de Heer also mentioned three other dramatic films from that period: Beneath Clouds, Rabbit-Proof Fence (featuring Kenneth Branagh), and Australian Rules. I have not seen any of these (all set in relatively modern times, unlike Ten Canoes), but I have seen Rabbit-Proof Fence on the shelves at libraries, on Netflix, and/or at Blockbuster. I’ll probably check into all three, based on the summaries I see at IMDB, since all three also deal with another pet theme of mine: coming-of-age stories involving teens, and/or rites of passage in general.

Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention David Gulpilil’s recent arrest and conviction over a drunken domestic abuse situation. Perhaps this goes to the reality of race and class in solidifying the perennial “outsider”, self-medicator or alienated status of indigenous people, whether or not poverty even enters the equation. But alcohol abuse is a country unto itself. So while Native American and other comparable minority communities worldwide have similarly struggled with the legacy of addiction and genetic tendencies, each case should mostly be considered based on its own details. If this is the road to treatment and recovery for David — who is now reconciled to his wife — then I for one will gladly look forward to another few decades of his onscreen work once he gets out of the clink in five months. 

As former U.S. poet laureate Robert Pinsky writes in his poem Dying

a bright soul keeps beating

bored and impatient in the monster’s mouth.



  1. A very thought-provoking post. I often ponder upon issues of diversity, culture, and worldview. I guess it’s somewhat in my genes – my Grandmother’s cousin was a pioneer among mid-20th century women writers in this country: Mari Sandoz. She wrote a New York Times’ best sellers list biography of her father titled, “Old Jules.” I mention this fact now because she frustrated publishers at the time by making a tremendous effort to write about the Native Americans in patterns of prose meant to replicate the linguistics of some of the natives of the Nebraska plains. This left parts of her book ‘challenging’ to read for the average, Caucasian American reader. However, Mari persisted and got her efforts published – leaving the challenges in the reader’s hands to judge.
    Thanks again for your post – film has always entertained me but is not my area of expertise or passion. Your post, however, may provoke me to see the referenced films. Keep on writing – please!

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