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Published June 1st, 2007 | by Mike Barnard

Ten Canoes Review

Director: Rolf de Heer, Peter Djigirr Rating: 4/5

Remember the days when your grandparents used to tell you one of their life stories which rambled on yet was utterly absorbing? Well Ten Canoes is equally engrossing as wise elders bestow their wealth of knowledge and experience through the power of storytelling. Set a thousand years ago in the tribal times of north Australia, young tribesman Dayindi desires one of the wives of his much older brother Minygululu. To teach him why he should not seek her affections, Minygululu tells Dayindi a story from the mythical past: a story of wrong love, kidnapping, sorcery, bungling mayhem and revenge gone wrong.

Narrated as a story-within-a-story which may sound complicated, the key to enjoying this film is savouring its slow unfolding as the two merge and mirror each other. Indigenous performer David Gulpilil, an Australian screen icon, narrates with a warmth and affection that draws you in with asides and jokes your granddad would tell to keep you entertained. We witness Dayindi and the tribe build canoes, hunt and then return to camp, interrupting the flow of Minygululu’s tale of Ridjimiraril, his three wives and his younger brother Yeeralparil who is keen on one of them. The scenes of Minygululu and Dayindi feel like the sort of docu-film you see on the National Geographic Channel: it captures the beautiful Australian outback as Gulpilil describes tribal life. This is buoyed by the amusing and often brutal parable of Ridjimiraril, dramatising customs such as a tense and ultimately painful payback ceremony for lawbreakers that sees spears thrown at the wrong-doer and another from their tribe until one is hit. Along the way we meet the large-bellied elder Birrinbirrin, whose desire for honey brings out a comical childlike lust for sweet food, as well as a sorcerer who protects the village from bad spirits.

The strength of Ten Canoes, which has been praised with awards in Australia and won the special jury prize at Cannes last year, is its unique recreation of the convoluted Aboriginal storytelling traditions. There is no need to rush to the moral of the tale to make a point: these yarns were seen as leisure activities for both the teller and listener. The episodic instalments ape our own viewing of a television series such as Lost or Desperate Housewives: Minygululu reveals parts of Ridjimiraril’s tale at a measured pace to keep you wanting more and it really works. If you’ve ever wanted to be educated and entertained in the way of Indigenous Australian culture, Ten Canoes offers a fascinating insight that welcomes you in with open arms: by the end you will feel so at ease with Gulpilil that you will want him to come round to your house for some more legendary stories. It may be a slow-burner, but that is all part of this enchanting river ride.

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