Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell

Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigirr (directors), Rolf de Heer and Julie Ryan (writers), Ten Canoes (2006)

The film Ten Canoes (2006) directed by Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigirr, and written by Rolf de Heer and Julie Ryan, presents a cinematic adaption of two traditional stories from the Aboriginal Yolgnu people of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory, Australia, to showcase their ancient, ongoing culture and traditions, especially regarding how their traditional stories express morals that teach the young the ‘proper’ way to live.  The filmmakers use cinema to bring these ancient tribal stories to a far wider audience, taking care to tell them in an authentic way by being set in the remote tropical region where they originated, told in the original Aboriginal Yolgnu Matha language, and performed by a cast of Aboriginal (mostly amateur) actors from the region. 

The film alternates between two parallel related stories, one from the past and one from an ancient past, both of which are about a young man who desires to have a wife and envies his older brother who has three wives.  The story from the past is told in black and white, while the story from the ancient past is told in colour, signifying its greater importance. The black and white story is informed by the wisdom of the colour story.   In the black and white story, an older brother (Minygululu) tells his younger brother (Dayindi) who wants a wife the ancient story to teach him the proper way to live, and while he does this the two men are part of a hunting party of ten men that make traditional bark canoes to punt across the swamp to hunt magpie geese and collect their eggs.  Meanwhile, the ancient story tells the story of a young man (Yeeralparil) in a similar situation who wants a wife and covets the youngest wife of his older brother (Ridjimiraril).  In the ancient story, the young man (Yeeralparil) is impatient, but chance intervenes in the form of these tribal men’s collective suspicion of a stranger from another tribe who came upon the men while they were in the bush, and this encounter, and their subsequent suspicion of the stranger, is soon followed by the coincidental disappearance of the older brother’s middle wife.  Later, the disappearance leads the concerned and troubled older brother (Ridjimiraril) to spear and kill a stranger who ventures nearby, only to discover it is the wrong stranger, and this injustice leads to the imposition of Aboriginal tribal law, which subjected the older brother to a ritual spearing by the aggrieved tribe, which mortally wounds the older brother.  He dies, so justice is done, but soon afterwards the middle wife returns, having escaped from being held by another more distant tribe unrelated to the strangers encountered in the story so far.  The young man (Yeeralparil), who coveted his older brother’s youngest wife, now has three wives due to the custom that the younger brother of a deceased man inherits his wives. The moral of the story is to be patient.  The younger man (Yeeralparil) got what he wanted by waiting. The older brother (Ridjimiraril) should have been patient too, waiting for his wife to return. Instead he acted impetuously and this cost him his life and that of an innocent stranger.  The young man in the black and white story (Dayindi) is shown to appreciate the wisdom from the ancient story but the story is not clear whether he acted upon it. 

As well as teaching the need to have patience and to not be impetuous, the film shows the importance of Aboriginal tribal law and its viability as a means to impose justice. It may be different to British/Australian law, but it appears to be based on principles similar to the Judeo-Christian principles that inform British/Australian law, especially the Biblical principle of ‘an eye for an eye’, which means that a proportional retaliation is an appropriate punishment.  While telling these stories about Aboriginal tribal law, the film also conveys much about Aboriginal spirituality, the Dreamtime, which tells of the origins of the land (created by the great water goanna, Yurringgur), the people who inhabit it (the Yolgnu), and their sacred places (the ponds where life originates).  When an Aboriginal man dies, his soul goes to the sacred pond from which he originated, and then, when the time is right, he is born again. 

The film sets out to introduce white European people to something they would have never heard of before, old or ancient Aboriginal Yolgnu stories that serve a similar role in this tribal Aboriginal society that the well-known and much-valued stories of the Trojan Wars or of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table or of the Old Testament do for white European people.  The film honours these Aboriginal Yolgnu stories by elevating them from being passed on by word-of-mouth to being represented in cinema.  This was also the first narrative film made in an Aboriginal language, the Yolgnu Matha language. By making a film in an Aboriginal language, it served to elevate the status of Aboriginal languages, since these were never written languages.  It also conveys that these languages are living languages, and not just the subject of anthropological interest regarding a disappearing tribal past.  The filmmakers presented these stories in a manner intended to encourage the cinema audience to appreciate these stories, and Aboriginal languages, as valuable and to have additional respect for Aboriginal people as a consequence, especially those who still live according to a traditional lifestyle. The cinema audience is expected to find the stories entertaining and a source of wisdom. 

Unlike other films about Aborigines made in Australia, this film has no white people in it. The stories take place long before white people arrived.  It therefore shows Aboriginal tribal society as viable and interesting in its own distinctive ways.  It is not a story about oppression that depicts Aborigines as the victims of injustice by colonial or Australian oppressors.  It is not a story that shows Aborigines having difficulty adjusting to the impositions of Western civilisation.  It represents a people who were fine without Western civilisation.  They had dramas and problems but sorted them out their own way. 

In addition, while the film was partly inspired by the anthropological photographs taken by Donald Thomson in 1930 of tribal Aborigines from Arnhem Land in their natural state, before being transformed by the influence of white people, the film avoids the serious or scholarly tone of anthropology, and goes out of its way to present tribal Aborigines as human, just like everyone else.  This involved presenting Aboriginal hunters making a fart joke near the commencement of the film.  There are other jokes to which most people can relate, such as jokes about sexual desire and performance or jokes about gluttony.  The film also jokes about men as always talking about women as men everywhere are inclined to do, and it depicts the loneliness of single men who experience universal emotional states, like jealousy and envy.  The film also shows how individuals, even respected individuals, can reach the wrong conclusions and act impulsively, and it depicts the universal desire to protect one’s family and seek justice.  Many of the images taken by Donald Thomson are reproduced in the film, including the picture that gave the film its name depicting ten tribal Aboriginal men punting across a swamp in their bark canoes.

By presenting two Aboriginal stories, one from the past and another from the ancient past, which provide virtually the same messages, the film conveys the continuity of Aboriginal culture as one of the longest-lasting living cultures that can still be found.  The film celebrates Aboriginal tradition and wisdom as unchanging, even over vast periods of time.  Old and ancient Aboriginal stories are shown to be as relevant today as they were in the past. 

The film also shows the influence of the left-wing postmodern theoretical tradition of post-colonialism.  Post-colonialism puts racism as the centre of the history of Western civilisation. Specifically, it looks at the legacy of colonialism on the formerly colonised, notably how the culture of the colonised is classified, for example, as ‘exotic’, and treated as a subsidiary or as inferior to Western culture.  However, this important dimension of post-colonialism is bypassed in this film in favour of another important dimension, which is involved with determining who tells the stories and what stories are told. 

Post-colonialism, with its interest in the politics of how knowledge about a society is created and disseminated, has an advocacy dimension, seeking to empower formerly colonial peoples, including Indigenous people, to reclaim their culture and self-esteem and to present their perspective on the colonial experience and its legacy, or to present their culture and their stories that predate the colonial experience in their own way.  The film Ten Canoes sets out to do this.  It is intended to counter the traditional ‘Eurocentric’ (white) interpretations emanating from the West.  Post-colonialism claims a space for formerly colonial and Indigenous peoples to speak for themselves in their own voices and to assert the value of their (formerly marginalised) cultures, ways of generating knowledge about their world, and collective wisdom. 

According to post-colonialism, non-white and Indigenous people are encouraged to speak for themselves rather than have white people speak for them. Non-white and Indigenous people are encouraged to develop literature and art that positively asserts their distinctive post-colonial identity in defiance of the labels or definitions imposed on them by Westerners.  There have been government programmes introduced in Western nations, like Australia, to fund these developments. 

The film Ten Canoes represents a deliberate attempt to enable the Indigenous people of Australia to tell their stories and to present Indigenous people as speaking for themselves. Even though the principal director and co-writer, Rolf De Heer is white, his co-director, Peter Djigirr, is an Aborigine.  The Aboriginal narrator of the film, David Gulpilil, contributed many of the stories of his people, the Yolgnu people, and he helped inspire Rolf de Heer to make the film.  He also performed the key role of the narrator of the film, with his distinctive phrasing and tone adding to the film’s sense of Aboriginal authenticity. 

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

© Mark Lopez 2023 All RIGHTS RESERVED

The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.) 

Subject: Ten Canoes meaning, Ten Canoes themes, Ten Canoes analysis, Ten Canoes notes