Film as Text: Ten Canoes

[UPDATE: 14 June 2010 – This article is now available online in full here.]

Yolngu storytelling in Ten Canoes

NOTE: This article discusses the theatrical version of Ten Canoes containing Yolngu language with English subtitles and English narration by David Gulpilil.

Group%20Canoes%203567 smallTen Canoes is an extraordinarily unique film about the Indigenous Australian Yolngu people, who live in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory. Under the combined direction of acclaimed Australian filmmaker Rolf de Heer (The Tracker, Bad Boy Bubby) and Peter Djigirr, a local man from the Arafura Swamp region where the film was shot, Ten Canoes combines Yolngu storytelling traditions with a Western approach to narrative cinema. It is not so much the story itself that is of interest in Ten Canoes but the way the story is presented. While conventional filmic techniques are used to indicate different time periods and the division between subjective occurrences and objective occurrences, the way these boundaries are collapsed and the way the story is layered reflects the importance of storytelling to the Yolngu people. As the unseen Storyteller (David Gulpilil) tells us, ‘It’s not a story like your story, but it’s a good story’.

It is important to appreciate the immense importance of storytelling to the Yolngu people. Dr Caroline Josephs, who examined sacred oral storytelling traditions for her doctoral thesis, presents Yolngu storytelling as an all-encompassing event that creates a relationship between all things including self, country and kinsman. It combines history with the Dreamtime, past and present, interior experience for the individual and exterior experiences. Josephs writes, ‘It is also primarily an experiential approach to knowing, a felt sense in the body, and can not in my view, be met through analytic conceptual frames of reference.’ In order to ‘explain’ Yolngu storytelling to non-Indigenous people, one must tell a story.[i]

Ten Canoes illustrates the power of storytelling and how it creates a relationship not just between all the characters from the various parts of the film, but with the audience watching the film.

Layered storytelling

Jamie%20%26%20Peter%201239 smallTen Canoes begins with a playful acknowledgement of the type of stories that non-Indigenous Australian audiences are used to seeing. The first line spoken by The Storyteller is the very sombre, ‘Once upon a time in a land far, far away’, which is the famous line that begins the popular Star Wars films. The Storyteller then laughs and says, ‘Nah not like that, I’m only joking’. His story is from a long time ago but unlike Star Wars it does not follow the linear conventions of a classical Hollywood narrative. His story is multi-layered, covers two different time periods, incorporates multiple viewpoints, blends objective events with subjective viewpoints and incorporates perceived events with actual events. The Storyteller describes his story as something, ‘Growing like a young tree that is flowering for the first time’. The tree metaphor is used continuously throughout Ten Canoes and is a useful way of thinking about the story as something that gradually grows and branches out in different directions.

The structure of Ten Canoes is multi-layered and just like the men on the goose egg hunting expedition who peel the bark off trees to make their canoes, the layers of the story are peeled back for the audience so that we can get to the heart of the story. However, like the bark of a tree, each layer has significance and importance to the whole. In the prologue (the external layer) The Storyteller describes the creation of the land and his own birth. His description is a combination of legend and myth and introduces magic and spirits as elements that facilitate the logical chain of events within the context of the story. The Storyteller then begins to describe his ancestors, taking the audience to the next level of storytelling, which concerns the story of young Dayindi (Jamie Gulpilil) on his first goose egg hunting expedition. Over the course of the hunt Dayindi is told a story by his older brother Minygululu (Peter Minygululu), a story set in the mythical times that reflects the situation where Dayindi desires one of Minygululu’s wives. This mythical story then takes us to the next layer of the film, which The Storyteller tells us occurred even further back in time. The story told by Minygululu is about another pair of brothers; Ridjimiraril (Crusoe Kurddal) a proud warrior who like Minygululu has a younger brother (Yeeralparil, also played by Jamie Gulpilil) who desires one of his wives.

[i] Dr Caroline Josephs, ‘Silence as a way of knowing in Yolngu Indigenous Australian storytelling’ in Elizabeth Burns Coleman and Maria Suzette Fernandes-Dias (eds.), Negotiating the Sacred II: Blasphemy and Sacrilege in the Arts, ANU E Press, Canberra, 2008, pp173-189. Also available at, Accessed 1 March 2009

se53-coverThis is an excerpt from an article printed in issue 54 (Winter 2009) of Screen Education.

[UPDATE: 14 June 2010 – This article is now available online in full here.]

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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