River of Life and Death: Women, Religion, Power and Purity in Water

12 February 2013
Water: Chuyia (Sarala Kariyawasam)

Chuyia (Sarala Kariyawasam)

Water is the third and most accomplished film in director Deepa Mehta’s Elements Trilogy, which consists of three films that are thematically linked together rather than being films with an ongoing story and reoccurring characters. Water is set in 1938 in the holy city of Varanasi, which is situated in India on the banks of the Ganges, a sacred river in the Hindu religion. The film is unusual for having three protagonists – Chuyia (Sarala Kariyawasam), Kalyani (Lisa Ray) and Shakuntala (Seema Biswas) – all of whom are widows. Due to very conservative interpretations of Hinduism, the three women are expected to live the remainder of their lives in poverty and chastity in a segregated temple with other widows from the area. As widows they are regarded as spiritually unclean and an economic burden on their families and society.

In the background to their stories is the beginning of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s campaign to drive the British out of India and establish an independent India movement through non-violence. The hope and progressive thinking that Gandhi introduced into Indian society provides a stark contrast to the sad and oppressive lives that the widows must endure. Through the lives of the three main characters, Water exposes and comments on the appalling treatment of widowed women in some parts of India, since even today the attitudes that are depicted in the film in the 1930s still exist. It also uses the treatment of the widows to represent larger issues about how religion is misused by people in a position of power to deny human rights.

While specific colours dominate all the Element Trilogy films, the use of white and blue in Water is especially important in the way the film engages with notions of purity. In the context of the film white is both the colour of mourning and traditional notions of purity. This makes it a particularly oppressive colour since the widows do live a death-like existence due to religious instruction to remain chaste out of respect for their deceased husbands. This concept of purity is aligned in the film with religious hypocrisy designed to keep the widows subservient since doing otherwise would mean caring for them properly and therefore having to spend money.

Blue is the colour of water, which has the power to give life and to take it away. Furthermore, in Hindi water represents feelings, intuition and imagination, which are all characteristics that are traditionally associated with femininity. This is appropriate since the film is about women and the way women are expected to behave. However, when removed from the motif of water, the colour blue is used in Water to challenges the dogmatic representation of purity as self-denial and obedience. Rather than following a set of social and religious rules designed by people in power, expressions of true love and compassion are presented in Water as true moments of purity and these moments are evocatively associated with the colour blue.

Deepa Mehta and the Elements Trilogy

Deepa Mehta was born in India, but migrated to Canada in her early twenties. Her films draw upon both western cinematic traditions and Indian customs to pursue a feminist ethical agenda. She explores power structures in Indian society, both historical and contemporary, to critique the inequality created through gender discrimination, religious hypocrisy and class. Mehta first received international prominence in 1996 with the release of her critically acclaimed and highly controversial Fire, which was the first film in the Elements Trilogy. The same-sex relationship themes caused considerable unrest from many conservative religious groups and political parties that even resulted in a cinema being burnt down. The hostility towards Mehta from groups within India meant that production for Water was shut down in 2000 when protestors destroyed the sets the night before shooting began. Mehta had to relocate production from the banks of the Ganges in India to Pakistan and the film could not commence shooting until 2005.

The common themes in all the films in the Elements Trilogy are religion being misused for political purposes, women being made subordinate, the oppression of female desire and forbidden love. In Fire the forbidden love is between two women and Mehta explores the politics of sexuality not just between the same-sex couple, but within the dynamics of two passionless arranged marriages. The second film in the trilogy is Earth (1998) set in 1947 during the dissolution of the British Indian Empire. It was a time of enormous religious tension between the Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims as 12.5 million people were displaced as geographical divisions were formed based on religious demographics. The nature of forbidden love explored in Earth is between a man and woman with different religions, with Mehta exploring the politics of nationalism and how this can manifest in religious extremism and violence. In Water the forbidden love is the widow Kalyani falling in love with another man, which is seen to be an act of betrayal against her dead husband. Mehta explores the politics of religion to highlight how religious hypocrisy is used to ensure women are undermined and made subservient for economic purposes.


The first of the three protagonists in Water is Chuyia, a child who has become a widow as a result of an arranged marriage to a man she never met. At the beginning of the film she is presented as something of a free and rebellious spirit despite the absurdity and unfairness of the situation she is placed in. Happily eating a sugar cane she is introduced gleefully playing with the feet of her dying husband as he is being transported. It is not until the reality of having to live in the widow’s temple sinks in that she displays any actual signs of grief and the contrast between her colourful and decorative clothes to the white robes she is forced to wear is very pronounced. However, even once in the temple Chuyia stands out as a force of life with her head painted by Shakuntala in bright yellow turmeric and the flurry of quick edits as she runs through the temple, providing a playful and disruptive break to the static and slow camera movements that are otherwise used within the temple.

The sense of playfulness within Chuyia is expressed throughout the film through her constant movement and the movement of the camera during many of the scenes she is featured in. Her catatonic stillness during the film’s conclusion is therefore devastating to witness. What happens to Chuyia comments on the dual symbolism of the Ganges in the film to purify and to take away life. While the Ganges is the site for purification for Hindu people, it is also the passage to the upper class homes where Chuyia is tricked into prostitution. It is fitting that Chuyia’s escape from Varanasi is in the arms of Narayan (John Abraham), whose father has committed so much damage, and by train. While water is traditionally a symbol of change and progression, in Water the Ganges ultimately becomes like institutionalised religion – a destructive force that destroys lives while continuing the pretence of being about purity. The train on the other hand is a force of modernity and progress that takes Chuyia and Narayan into Gandhi’s new India and away from the oppressive traditions and abuses of power in Varanasi.


Chuyia isn’t the only character who is harmed by the Ganges as Kalyani is literally killed by it when she drowns herself after being denied marriage to Narayan, ironically by his father who had been using Kalyani as a prostitute before turning on Chuyia. Throughout Water Kalyani is compared to Chuyia as an older version of the woman Chuyia may have become if she stayed in Varanasi. Kalyani is also a widow who was married to a man she never met and she was being prostituted by Madhumati (Manorama), the exploitive older widow who runs the temple. When Kalyani’s long hair is cut off by Madhumati, who presumably only allowed Kalyani to grow it long in the first place to appear attractive as a prostitute, the scene mirrors the earlier scene when Chuyia’s hair is cut before she enters the temple. The graphic matches establish the strong relationship between Kalyani and Chuyia, and the danger of Chuyia sharing the same fate.

Kalyani’s religious devotion is important to note as being different from the misuse of religious rhetoric that is seen throughout the film. Mehta is not attacking religion in Water but critiquing the way it is used for economic and political gain. Kalyani’s faith and charity represents religion in its purest and most noble sense. She compares herself to a lotus flower, which is a divine symbol in ancient Asian traditions representing the virtues of sexual purity and non-attachment. When Kalyani first appears in the film she is shot from a low angle so she majestically appears above the rest of the temple. Chuyia even momentarily thinks that she is an angel. Kalyani is also shot from a similar low angle during the various scenes with Narayan, although scenes when she is in the temple and he is on the street are often framed so she appears behind the bars on the balcony to give the impression of her being imprisoned.

Kalyani is also strongly associated with the colour blue and says when she remarries she will wear blue, the colour of Krishna. Blue is not only a colour commonly used to represent water, but in the film is the colour of life and associated with characters during moments of spiritual transformation. The very romantic sequence when Kalyani sneaks out to be with Narayan features a heavy use of blue light and blue backgrounds to indicate the purity, in the true sense, of the love that has developed between the pair. In this way blue is used in the film to symbolise falling in love as an act of spiritual transformation. The other major use of the colour blue for a moment of spiritual transformation is associated with Shakuntala in the moment when she follows her conscience despite it so significantly conflicting with her religious beliefs.


The moment when Shakuntala is bathed in a blue light is when she directly stands up to Madhumati to free Kalyani. Up until that moment Shakuntala had been an enigmatic character. She is another widow at the temple, somehow above Madhumati’s authority but until this moment had never directly challenged her. Even more so than Kalyani, Shakuntala displays a sincere devotion to her faith that frequently manifests through her taking on a nurturing role with some of the other widows including Chuyia and Kalyani. While something of a peripheral character during most of the film, which focuses on Kalyani through the eyes of Chuyia, Shakuntala emerges as the final protagonist when she directly confronts the religious rhetoric that she has been living by to make sure Chuyia leaves Varanasi so that she won’t be abused again.

Towards the end of the film, possibly as a result of witnessing what was happening to Kalyani and Chuyia, Shakuntala begins questioning her faith. This culminates in the scene when she confronts the priest Sadananda (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) about the scriptures concerning widows. A sympathetic character, Sadananda explains that the relevant scriptures do list a life of self denial as one of the options for widows, along with being burned with her husband or marrying the husband’s younger brother. However, he also reveals that there are now new laws in favour of remarriage, but religious groups have ignored these laws since the laws do not suit them. This is a crucial scene in the film since it directly addresses the danger of religion having too much power and influence to the extent that it can bypass the law for its own end. It also exposes how religious beliefs can be hijacked to serve the needs of people in a position of authority.

Water concludes with Shakuntala performing an extreme act of kindness, generosity and sacrifice by saving Chuyia from the widow’s temple and Madhumati’s clutches. The audience are not completely certain about what Shakuntala’s risks by doing this, but it is a reasonable assumption that by defying Madhumati and the local customs Shakuntala will at the very least be cast out of the temple to fend for herself in an environment hostile towards widows. Her act of defiance is also one of religious defiance against a set of powerful beliefs she had lived with her entire life.

It is significant that Shakuntala takes Chuyia away from the Ganges, and all it represents, to the train and other symbols of progress. Not only is Ghandi, who is on the train, a symbol of the future but he speaks into a microphone, which represents new modes of mass communication that would allow messages such as his to travel further than they ever had before. As a member of the new generation of Indian people, Chuyia has a chance to reap the rewards of these changes so ‘escapes’ on the train with Narayan who by accepting the responsibility of looking after her is somewhat redeemed from his previous passivity and inaction. On the other hand, Shakuntala is left behind, with the train receding into the background, as she is trapped in an old way of life. Water ends with the arresting and provocative image of Shakuntala starring into the camera in a mixture of sorrow, hope, despair, uncertainty and defiance. Her bold glare into the camera could even be read as a challenge to the audience to confront the injustices within their own lives.

Originally published in issue 64 (Summer 2012) of Screen Education.

Thomas Caldwell, 2013

Aliens: Mothers, monsters and marines

23 September 2011
Aliens: Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and Rebecca ‘Newt’ Jorden (Carrie Henn)

Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and Rebecca ‘Newt’ Jorden (Carrie Henn)

James Cameron’s 1986 film Aliens contains a fascinating exploration of the way Western culture has traditionally aligned feminine characteristics onto nature while masculine characteristics have been aligned with civilisation. However, far from the more clear cut representation of this dichotomy that Cameron would later explore in Avatar (2009), where feminine/nature equalled good and masculine/civilisation equalled bad, Aliens has a more complex exploration by presenting two extremes of femininity with masculinity caught in the crossfire in the middle. With the alien queen as the monstrous version of motherhood facing off against Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) as the nurturing version of motherhood, the hyper masculine marines are at best rendered ineffective and at worst killed or used as incubators.[i] A further complexity is added by having the ruthless corporate interests at play in Aliens to be more reflexive of the parasitic aliens than the values of most of the human characters.

Exploitative commercialism

Commercialism features heavily throughout Aliens creating a very cynical depiction of humanity in the future still being obsessed with making money despite the great technological advances we have made as a species. This theme began in Ridley Scott’s 1979 horror/science-fiction film Alien, which Aliens is a sequel to, with the crew constantly bickering about their bonuses. It was then revealed that the company they reported to (not directly named as the Weyland-Yutani Corporation until Aliens) had an economic interest in the deadly alien, wanting to get it back to Earth, and considered the crew expendable.

The focus on economic gain over human life is introduced in Aliens during the very first line of dialogue when the salvage crew worker expresses his disappointment over the fact that because Ripley is alive they cannot claim her shuttle for themselves. Later when a panel of executives from Weyland-Yutani are questioning Ripley, they seem more concerned about the loss of the mining ship the Nostromo than taking what Ripley is saying seriously. There is also an early scene depicting the LV-426 colonists debating the claim rights to what they’ve been sent to investigate.

The concern over losing infrastructure and resources over preventing potential harm to humans is later expressed when Carter Burke (Paul Reiser) speaks out against the idea of destroying the LV-426 colony (and the aliens who now infest it that he describes as an ‘important species’) because of the investments his company has made. The true extent of Burke’s cold-hearted economic opportunism comes to light later when it is revealed that he intentionally ordered the colonists to investigate the derelict spaceship and when he deliberately exposes Ripley and Rebecca ‘Newt’ Jorden (Carrie Henn) to two of the impregnating spider-like ‘facehugger’ creatures in the hope that he can then smuggle the alien embryos back to Earth for the company’s biological weapons division.

Two types of parasites

AliensRipley may say that at least the aliens do not try to short-change each other for a percentage but the symbolic dichotomy of the company/alien allegiance versus humanity is set up in the original Alien film. The alien is the ‘perfect organism’ with its capacity to kill, acid blood defensive mechanism and parasitic reproductive system putting it at the top of the evolutionary food chain. The company is so purely focused on generating profit that it is similarly ruthless in its disregard for human life. Both the alien and the company exist to survive and continually grow.

In Aliens the primordial nightmare of the natural world that is the aliens is further emphasised but this time its human foe, specifically Ripley as the only survivor from the original film, is also aligned strongly with the natural world. Therefore, the opposing forces in Aliens are the brutal survival-of-the-fittest version of nature, reflected by both the aliens and the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, and the nurturing version of nature in the guise of Ripley.

Nurturing and destructive nature

The alien creature in Alien reflected a range of cultural anxieties about motherhood and nature. It was ‘born’ from a human who was forcibly impregnated through oral penetration, an act with overt sexual overtones. The monstrous femininity in Alien was further emphasised through the naming of the Nosromo’s computer as Mother, which on company orders treated the human crew as expendable. The symbolic conspiracy between the alien and the company is further established in the scene where Ash (Ian Holm), the crew’s android who was acting under orders from the company, tries to suffocate Ripley by forcing a pornographic magazine down her throat, repeating the image of sexualised oral violation.

The opposing team in Alien that went up against the deadly creature was the working-class crew of the Nostromo, which included Ripley. While not overtly masculinised, the Nostromo crew and their dilapidated mining ship were products of industrialisation and therefore represented the forces of civilisation (traditionally aligned with masculinity) opposing the threat from the natural world (traditionally aligned with femininity and overtly so in the Alien films). Set 57 years later, Aliens continues the mise-en-scene emphasis on industrial spaces although this time there is the introduction of a strong miliary aesthetic. This gives the human characters a heightened masculinity to face off against the heightened monstrous femininity of a large nest of aliens with a queen alien at its centre.

Aliens: Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver)

The themes of nature and motherhood throughout Aliens are very pronounced with Ripley on the one hand being situated as the ‘good’ mother/force of nature while the alien queen is situated as a ‘bad’ mother/force of nature. Ripley is presented as caring, nurturing and protective towards the orphaned Newt while the alien queen symbolises nature at its most destructive and a nightmarish version of birth where unwitting subjects are forcibly penetrated and then made to carry an alien infant, which is ‘born’ by bursting out of their chest.

While there was little backstory given to Ripley in the original Alien film, in Aliens we learn that she was coming home to a daughter (no mention is ever made of a father) who has since grown old and died during the time Ripley was in her extended period of hypersleep. When Ripley discovers this news, and is naturally upset, she is sitting in a room with an artificial projection of a forest, which demonstrates just how far removed from Earth and the natural world she is, despite being on an orbiting space station. And yet Ripley is aligned with nature both as her role as motherly protector for Newt later in the film and the very dramatic graphic match edit at the start of the film where the Ripley’s sleeping face fades into a shot of the Earth.

Hyper masculinity and technology

By including the information about Ripley having been a mother she is given a specific motherly femininity that was not necessarily present in the original Alien. This is necessary to then contrast her with the marines whom she travels with to the LV-426 colony. The marines all have hyper-masculine bodies, including the women marines, one of which is joked about for being mistaken for a man. The marines are physically in peak condition but their ultra toned and toughened bodies give them an almost manufactured appearance. They have been mentally and physically conditioned for the purposes of combat and are far removed from the intuitive and empathetic Ripley.

While treated as somewhat of a novelty the marines are not bothered by the presence of Bishop (Lance Henriksen), an ‘artificial person’, perhaps because they are just as programmed as he is, possibly more so. The dialogue spoken by the marines is also an almost nonsensical combination of military jargon, bravado and slang. It is not until after the devastating initial attack by the aliens that the traditional chains of command break down, Ripley unofficially becomes their leader, and the marines all start talking more normally as well as displacing more emotions.

Aliens: Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) and Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn)

Ripley and Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn)

Before arriving on LV-426 everything about the marines and the settings they inhabit is artificial, aggressive and militaristic. The actual ship they travel in, the Sulaco, looks like a giant gun floating through space and while the awakening from hypersleep sequence mimics the sequence from Alien, this time, as the camera floats through the empty spaces of the ship, it, by contrast, focuses on the weaponry and other pieces of military hardware. When checking their weapons Private Drake (Mark Rolston) and Private Vasquez (Jenette Goldstein) move as if they are in some sort of dance with the heavy machinery. Private Hudson’s (Bill Paxton) boast about the marines ends with him almost in an ecstatic rapture as he lists all the weapons at their disposal. Even when the film hints at the possibility of a romance between Ripley and Corporal Hicks (Michael Biehn), it is done through Hicks offering Ripley a tracking device (completed with a joke about it not symbolising an engagement ring) and then demonstrating the use of one of his guns.

The artificial, technological and manufactured world of the military in Aliens initially excludes Ripley because of her status as an outsider. There is an anti-intellectualism in the way the marines reject her as an expert since all they think they need to know is what to point and shoot at. However, Ripley’s first act of endearing herself to the soldiers is when she demonstrates her proficiency in one of the giant robot-like cargo-loader units. By effectively giving herself an artificial giant mechanical body, Ripley is now one of the warriors who can use technology to improve upon nature. At the climatic final showdown at the end of the film it is the use of the cargo-loader that allows Ripley to defeat the queen alien. The mechanical body defeats the natural abomination. Curiously director James Cameron would later significantly alter the mechanical body symbolism when it is used in Avatar to again represent the military but this time as a destructive force that is threatening the natural world.

While Ripley does successfully use technology, machinery and weaponry to defeat the aliens she does so in an inventive and resourceful way that distinguishes her from the militarised approach of the marines. Firstly, for all their bravado, the marines in Aliens are very quickly shown to be completely out of their depth. Their weapons are useless underneath the cooling towers and they quickly discover that they are facing an enemy that does not abide by the rules of war that they are accustomed to. The aliens are the ultimate guerrilla warriors who use stealth and surprise in their attacks, discriminating against nobody. The aliens kill and impregnate the humans regardless of gender, age, class and race. After the first confrontation with the aliens most of the marines are killed (or possibly taken away for impregnation) and of the marine survivors only Hicks and Vasquez retain any sense of composure. Hudson falls to pieces and Lieutenant Gorman (William Hope) proves to be ineffective and out of his depth.

The bitch versus Mummy

AliensWhile Ripley is aligned with feminine and natural characteristics through her nurturing instincts, she is far removed from the alien creatures that represent the natural world at its most brutal and savage. The aliens are compared to both ants and bees and it turns out that the species is socially structured like an insect colony with a queen at the centre doing all the reproduction while her workers/drones go out to find bodies to be impregnated. By aligning the aliens so closely to the insect world Aliens is able to remove all audience sympathy from them as being part of the natural order. They are not a misunderstood species that only attack when provoked but are a deadly parasite that destroys other life so that it may continue. There is no doubt that the aliens must be destroyed and the charge to do so is led by Ripley, the human character most associated with nature.

The only character who does speak out in defence of the aliens is Burke but his motives are purely opportunistic rather than being out of a sense of animal welfare. The Weyland-Yutani Corporation’s desire to use the aliens for their own biotech weaponry almost symbolically removes the aliens from the natural order and aligns them with the most exploitive aspects of humanity. The company may not have created the aliens but they are responsible for the events that have caused human life to be lost due to exposure to the aliens. The Weyland-Yutani Corporation employees, Burke in particular, and the aliens mirror each other as different types of ruthless parasites. Again, it is curious to note that Cameron’s approach to the natural world is remarkably different in Avatar where all the creatures are valued as sacred life, including the hostile ones. The various representations in Aliens of the natural order versus the human order are a lot less clean cut.

The ultimate portrayal of the brutal natural world in Aliens is the perverse process in which the aliens give birth via human bodies. Humans are first exposed against their will to the eggs that contain the facehugger creatures that forcibly penetrate its victim orally. The aggressive sexual penetration symbolism is even more aggressive and violent when the queen alien impales Bishop on her tail at the end of the film. Once impregnated the alien embryo grows within the human body until it is ready to rip its way out through the chest cavity, killing its victim. Even Newt recognises the similarities between human and alien pregnancies with the later being a nightmarish parody of the former.

Aliens: Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver)The alien queen is the monstrous mother figure as opposed to Ripley’s nurturing mothering figure. Gigantic and grotesques the alien queen is the most spectacular creature to be seen at this point in the film series, laying the deadly eggs via a giant birthing tube while her worker/drone aliens wait in attention on the side. The alien queen does also seem to possess an intelligence that the other aliens do not – she recognises the threat Ripley poses so keeps the other aliens at bay, she is able to work out how the elevator works and she is able to get on board the second dropship. Her intelligence suggests a more calculated level of menace that had not be seen previously. The initial standoff between the alien queen and Ripley is one of strange mutual recognition not just of the power each other has to destroy the other but also the motherly role they have each adopted for their own species. However, while Ripley comes up out the film being called ‘Mummy’ by Newt, the queen mother becomes the ‘bitch’ who is thrown out into space by Ripley with the aid of the cargo-loading suit. The pure harshness of the animal world as expressed in the insect nature of the alien is defeated by the nurturing mother who masters technology and machinery to defend herself.

Over twenty years after making Aliens, James Cameron uses the nature/female versus technology/male dichotomy in Avatar to make a clear statement of support on the side of the nature/female versus technology/male dichotomy that is so prevalent in so much popular culture, past and present.  Even in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) Cameron has Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) give a speech about women creating life while men create machines of destruction. However, back in 1986 in Aliens, perhaps particularly due to the mythology Cameron inherited from Ridley Scott’s original Alien film, the traditional alignment of female characters with nature facilitates the positive representation of femininity as resourceful and nurturing but also the much more negative representation of femininity as destructive and monstrous. However, rather than concluding that Aliens is therefore a confused text in terms of gender representations we should instead see it as a complex text that both reflects cultural anxieties about femininity and promotes progressive attitudes towards femininity. After all, the mother is the one who ends up defeating the bitch.

[i] For a full discussion on the monstrous feminine in the Alien films refer to Barbara Creed, ‘Horror and the Archaic Mother: Alien’, The Monstrous-Feminine: Film, Feminism and Psychoanalysis, Routledge, London and New York, 1993.

Screen Education

Originally published in issue 59 (Spring 2010) of Screen Education.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Free Will, Technology and Violence in a Futuristic Vision of Humanity – 2001: A Space Odyssey

3 June 2011

2001: A Space OdysseyStanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is one of the greatest films of all time and it is the director’s most profound and confounding exploration of humanity’s relationship to technology, violence, sexuality and social structures. Kubrick’s philosophical inquiries about the nature of humanity are explored to various degrees throughout all his films but in 2001: A Space Odyssey he explored his preoccupations most substantially by examining the place that humans occupy in the universe, asking some extremely weighty questions about the way humanity has evolved and suggesting what the next stage of our evolution will be like.

Although loosely based on the short stories ‘The Sentinel’ and ‘Encounter in the Dawn’ by the acclaimed science-fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, who would simultaneously write the novel 2001: A Space Odyssey while Kubrick wrote the film’s screenplay, the film transcends its literary origins. 2001: A Space Odyssey is a work of cinematic poetry and its combination of philosophical musings with its special effects, sound design, production design, cinematography and editing make it just as visually impressive and thematically fascinating now as it was when originally released in 1968. It is a film that has inspired countless science-fiction films since, including Duncan Jones’s acclaimed feature film début Moon (2009), which is a direct homage.

While Clarke’s excellent novel is often used to unravel many of the narrative intricacies that are not immediately apparent in Kubrick’s film, it should largely be put aside for the purpose of conducting any serious analysis of the film.  Clarke’s novel is excellent science-fiction literature, but Kubrick’s film uses the visual and audible powers of cinema to their full potential to create a work of art that produces a sensory effect on the viewer that the written word cannot replicate. The majority of the meaning to explore in 2001: A Space Odyssey is in its visuals, not in its dialogue or characterisation.

2001: A Space OdysseyMost of Kubrick’s films contain a sense of despair over the way humans are capable of treating each other. Institutionalised violence and different types of unnatural conformity feature throughout Kubrick’s films as dehumanising and soul-destroying forces. In Paths of Glory (1975) three innocent French soldiers are executed for cowardice during World War I in order to deflect responsibility of a failed attack away from the orders of an incompetent upper command. The horror film The Shining (1980) places its supernatural elements into the background and functions as a parable for domestic violence when the father of a family looking after a hotel violently takes out his frustrations on his wife and son. The American soldiers in Full Metal Jacket (1987) are first stripped of their identities and transformed into killing machines during their training to then be sent to Vietnam where they symbolically align themselves with cowboys and joke, ‘the gooks can play the Indians’.

Kubrick does seem to believe that violence is innate to humanity and the role of civilisation is to create structures for suppressing that violence without going too far to the other extreme where the social structures are themselves violent or overly restrictive in nature. The exploration of violence within humanity can be found in 2001: A Space Odyssey and yet it is arguably the only film Kubrick made that could be interpreted to offer some hope for humanity to transcend its inherently destructive ways. However, before suggesting that 2001: A Space Odyssey can be therefore regarded as an optimistic film it should be noted that this hope comes in the unlikely guise of alien interference and the cold and cynical guise of sterile technology.

2001: A Space Odyssey begins with the birth of technology during the section titled ‘The Dawn of Man’. The ape-like primates who will later evolve into modern humans are depicted as on the brink of dying out. They are herbivores with not enough to eat, they are vulnerable to predators, they squabble over a small pool of water with a rival tribe and they are terrified of the dark. After encountering the alien black monolith one of the apes simultaneously learns to use a bone to hunt with as well as use it to kill with. Technology is used to kill for food and to kill for territory. Tools and weapons are thus depicted as being linked together throughout humanity’s evolution with one group having to kill another in order to wield power for their tribe to survive.

2001: A Space OdysseyIn one of the greatest graphic match edits ever depicted in cinema, Kubrick cuts from the bone being triumphantly thrown into the air to a satellite in orbit three million years later. This dramatic cut links the two objects as tools of humanity but also draws attention to the vast differences between them. One is a crude and Earth-bound tool/weapon with a simple function while the other is a sophisticated and complex object that has left the planet to now serve humanity in space.

Kubrick seems to have extremely mixed feelings about technology as it is frequently depicted as a threat to humanity (for example the doomsday device in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, 1964) and yet he also views it as something beautiful. The first sequence set in outer space in 2001: A Space Odyssey is an extended, dialogue and plot-less sequence where Kubrick simply allows technology to dance. At first glance this sequence depicting the various satellites and spaceships, set to Johann Strauss’s ‘The Blue Danube’, may seem long and unnecessary but it is a crucial scene to understanding Kubrick’s vision of the future. The use of music and movement is designed to give the impression of the machines waltzing, which is the ultimate expression of the state of grace that humanity-built technology has now achieved. The days of bashing each other over the heads with bones is long gone as now humanity is capable of creating technology that can reach the stars and operate with the finesse of lovers dancing.

Not only is the use of Strauss’s waltz music romantically evocative but there is also a sexual symbolism in moments such as the space-plane docking into the wheel-shaped shape station (the wheel-shape also commenting on how far technology has progressed). Kubrick had previously presented machines in a sexual way in Dr. Strangelove when during the opening credits the image of a B-52 being connected midair to a fuelling plane is underscored by a lush orchestration version of ‘Try a Little Tenderness’. This sequence in Dr. Strangelove and the films overall sexual wordplays and innuendo is deliberately comical and suggests an absurd sexualization of objects of war. Kubrick would again do this in Full Metal Jacket when the army recruits are encouraged to sexualise their rifles.  However, in 2001 the effect is different as the sexualization of the machines is far les brutal, comical or overtly suggestive. Instead there is something almost chaste and sterile about the sequence.

2001: A Space OdysseyThe sense of sterility is further reflected by the extremely clean and corporate look given to the space station that Dr. Heywood R. Floyd (William Sylvester) disembarks onto. The modernist furniture, bright white lights and smooth surfaces all reflect a bland uniformity that is not dissimilar to the corporate branded world that is satirised in Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air (2009). The conversation between Heywood and the Russian scientists indicates that in this version of the future the Cold War persists, or there are at least still tensions between the USA and Russia, however, discourse is polite and there is no hint of violence. Is this the price of humanity has paid for evolving beyond the desire to kill – complete blandness?

The idea of technology erasing violence but also erasing the desires and freewill that define what makes us human is also explored by Kubrick in A Clockwork Orange (1971). As part of a zero tolerance approach to crime the film’s protagonist, the charismatic yet sociopathic teenager Alex DeLarge, is subjected to a controversial behavioural-correction treatment that makes him experience nausea whenever he starts to have any violent or sexual feelings. A Clockwork Orange suggests that stifling such urges is a bad thing because it suppresses the will and therefore the identity of the subject. What good is it for somebody to do good when they have no choice otherwise? In Alex’s case he also becomes sickened by the sound of Ludwig van Beethoven’s music as a side effect of his treatment. While Alex’s violence is clearly depicted as destructive his neutering also has a morally adverse effect.

Kubrick is clearly anti-conflict and anit-violence but he is also against any system of over regulation that reduces humans to virtual automations. While the utopian technology of 2001: A Space Odyssey is something to be marvelled at it also comes with a price, which is fully explored in the ‘Jupiter Mission’ section of the film. The dehumanising effect of over-regulation is critiqued in this section by depicting the human characters Dr. Dave Bowman (Keir Dullea) and Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) as almost emotionless servants of Discovery One. The three other scientists onboard are kept frozen in cryogenic hibernation making them virtual machines waiting to be switched on when required by the two ‘caretakers’ Bowman and Poole. The music that Kubrick uses during these scenes evokes the lonely emptiness of space but if Bowman or Poole feel melancholia, or any other emotion, then they don’t show it. Even when Poole receives a birthday message from his parents on Earth he barely registers any emotion.

2001: A Space OdysseyThe only character on board Discovery One with any traces of humanity is the computer HAL 9000 (voiced by Douglas Rain). Programmed by humans to conceal key truths from Bowman and Poole as well as preserving the mission at all costs, which ends up translating as resorting to murder, HAL is still the most sympathetic character on board. His flawed programming that results in violence is the result of his human developers, suggesting that humans have once again misused technology. While the deaths of the human characters are cold, mechanical and emotionless, HAL’s death is extremely moving. Pleading with Bowman to not shut him down and then spiralling into delirium, HAL’s death is given the most dramatic significance in the film.

Placing sympathy and humanity onto a machine character instead of the human characters is an effective way of establishing the dehumanising effect of the modern world. It is a technique that has since become very popular in science-fiction films making a similar comment about a society where the humans are so machine-like that the machines seem human by contrast. The replicants in Blade Runner (Ridley Scott, 1982), Bishop in Aliens (James Cameron, 1986), Murphy once he has become the cyborg enforcer in RoboCop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987) and even The Terminator in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (James Cameron, 1991) all express compassion, passions and degrees of empathy that most of the human characters in the films fail to possess.

At the conclusion of 2001: A Space Odyssey humanity has reached a point where civilisation and technology have appeared to have outgrown the primitive brutality of violence that developed when humanity first evolved due to the intervention of the monolithic aliens. However, this evolution has now brought humanity to a false-Utopian state of sterility, passivity and clinical coldness where a computer resorts to killing the humans it is supposed to work for in order to preserve its mission. Just as the early human-ape creatures at the start of the film were at the point where they could go no further by themselves, the humans in the film’s version of the year 2001 are also required to now undergo the next step in evolution.

2001: A Space OdysseyThis next evolutionary process is depicted in the concluding segment of 2001: A Space Odyssey titled ‘Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite’ when the film adopts the point-of-view of Bowman to take the audience through an extraordinary psychodelic experience that is designed to represent the enormity and significance of what is happening. While the novel 2001: A Space Odyssey informs the reader that Bowman is physically transported through an alien made Star Gate, the sensation of the sequence in the film could easily be interpreted as a mental or even spiritual transcendence onto a higher plane of consciousness. Delivered into an ornate eighteenth-century room that is uncanny in its out-of-context familiarity, time appears to fold in on itself as Bowman witnesses himself in progressively older incarnations, before adopting those incarnations to eventually be reborn.

As the distinctive notes and crashing drums of Richard Strauss’s ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ are heard for the final time to once again signal the next giant step for humanity, we are left with what we are to assume is what Bowman has become – an unborn child floating in space looking down on planet Earth. This dramatic final shot contains a sensation of awe and triumph and then the repeat of the  ‘The Blue Danube’ waltz over the end credits reinstates a sense of hope and beauty with this outcome.

However, what should we really deduce from this ending? Is humanity being transformed into the blank slate of an unborn star child something to hope for? Does such an ending suggest that given the way we are now there is no other hope for our species to survive? Since Kubrick is so critical of social and political structures that force humans to adopt a way living that is restrictive and contradicts freewill then what do we make of the idea that the entire human race have been manipulated by an alien intelligence since the very beginning? Is being under the control of a higher intelligence a source of comfort or the ultimate irony in Kubrick’s cinematic exploration of violence and artificial codes of behaviour throughout his career? The ultimate meaning of 2001: A Space Odyssey is as deliberately ambiguous as the motives and origins of the black monoliths whose gift of heightened intelligence gave humanity the tools it needed to both survive and self-destruct.

Screen Education

Originally published in issue 58 (Winter 2010) of Screen Education.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

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Some of the finest films

28 June 2010

Thomas Caldwell defends Australian cinema in Overland, issue 199 (Winter 2010)

Samson and Delilah

Samson and Delilah

Supporters of Australian cinema have had a mixed experience recently. Last year, we were able to enjoy some of the finest films that this country has produced but we also had to endure the ongoing attack upon the industry by commentators accusing Australian cinema of ‘doom and gloom’, not being escapist enough, not attracting large enough audiences and not making enough money at the box office. Such attacks are nothing new, but the disturbing recent trend was the increase in declarations that in order to ‘save’ Australian cinema it would be necessary to produce films with a more deliberate commercial appeal, to make more genre films and to cater to broader tastes. If such suggestions were embraced then Australian cinema would really be in trouble.

Part of the problem with the discussion about Australian cinema is that it has become increasingly hijacked by scrutiny of box office returns. The sustainability of local cinema is by no means an unimportant issue, but placing so much attention on film as commerce devalues cinema as an art form and therefore devalues the worth of a film. As Tom Ryan noted in the Age, Hollywood classics such as The Wizard of Oz, Citizen Kane, Duck Soup, It’s a Wonderful Life and Blade Runner were all box office flops when initially released. Appreciation over time, not the box office returns of the day, has given these films their reputation as cinematic masterpieces. It’s time to reclaim the debate about Australian cinema and appreciate Australian films as something more than simply a source of revenue. In fact, such a shift in attitude is essential for the industry to survive.

Mary and Max

Mary and Max

Prevalent in the debate is the idea that Australian filmmakers are deliberately making obscure films that they don’t want anybody to see. It’s a typically conservative reaction that sees the industry as a sort of exclusive, culturally indulgent love fest that occurs at the expense of the hard-working men and women of Australia. Such attacks have predominantly come from frustrated journalists who don’t actually like cinema, film reviewers wanting to distinguish themselves as the great spokesperson for the average Australian and bitter filmmakers who (sometimes reasonably) feel hard done by. It’s a mixture of self-promotion, ‘bad boy’ journalist posturing, contrived indignation and philistine pettiness. None of it is helpful.

An example of this type of criticism is Michael Coulter’s opinion piece ‘Screening the same old dreary story’ in the Sunday Age in August last year. His main argument is that Australian filmmakers don’t make films that connect with Australian audiences because the availability of public funding removes the imperative for doing so. This is a common argument, and commentators such as Coulter like to remind us, in true tabloid style, that such funding comes from the taxpayers.

Coulter acknowledges that many of the films that he found so repugnant in the early 1990s are actually ‘masterful’ and he also admits to having avoided seeing Australian films since he watched Rolf de Heer’s acclaimed Alexandra’s Project on his television in 2004 (he didn’t like it). The belief that Australian films are miserable is now such a widely entrenched view that somebody who no longer sees them is nevertheless given a platform to deride them. A similar view is expressed by Louis Nowra in his piece ‘Nowhere near Hollywood’ from the December 2009–January 2010 edition of The Monthly: ‘the general consensus [among Nowra’s friends] was that Australian films were boring, grim and unsatisfying.’ Is it any wonder that nobody goes to see Australian films when it is simply assumed that they are all depressing and bleak?

Samson and Delilah

Samson and Delilah

The Australian films released last year demonstrated that they do not deserve to be characterised as being miserable. The success of Samson and Delilah was often attributed to the film’s happy ending even though it was, for the most part, a harrowing depiction of extreme poverty, substance abuse and violence in an Indigenous community. Yet, through word of mouth and overwhelmingly positive reviews, Samson and Delilah was a breakthrough hit and attracted very large audiences who responded to its overall uplifting message.

However, Samson and Delilah was an anomaly when, in fact, its success should have been more widely shared. Beautiful Kate, Mary and Max, Two Fists One Heart, My Year Without Sex, Prime Mover and The Boys Are Back were all films that, like Samson and Delilah, arrived at a happy or at least life-affirming conclusion. When Bran Nue Dae opened in early 2010 the lazy response was to state how there was finally an Australian film that wasn’t depressing, a view that ignored the 2009 release of feel-good road movie Charlie and Boots and stoner comedy Stone Bros. All of these films were met with a range of critical responses, but none deserved to be dismissed as depressing and bleak.

As for films ending on a sombre note, there were a range released recently, including Cedar Boys, The Combination, Blessed, Disgrace and Balibo, not to mention inventive horror films Lake Mungo and Van Diemen’s Land. Again, these are films of varied quality, but to outright disregard them for containing challenging material is childish.

My Year Without Sex

My Year Without Sex

Antony I Ginnane, the Screen Producers Association of Australia (SPAA) president, was one of the most vocal critics of the Australian film industry last year. During his presentation at the opening of the SPAA conference in Sydney, Ginnane declared that the ‘Industry and government need to accept [filmmaking] is a business, not a culture fest.’ Like Coulter, he believes that Australian filmmakers don’t cater to what local audiences want and this is largely due to ‘the subsidy drug’. On Radio National’s Australia Talks on 24 November 2009 he expressed his disgust at fellow producers who make films that only earn a million dollars, stating ‘they should be lined up and shot.’

This attitude of Coulter, Ginnane and many others was triggered by the unfortunate reality that less than 4 per cent of money at the Australian box office in 2008 was spent on Australian films. This is, of course, an issue of genuine concern, but the vocal opinions of people like Coulter and Ginnane are making the situation worse by reinforcing the myth that Australian films are dull and bleak.

The Combination

The Combination

Nowra is one of the many commentators who would like to see more Australian films with a Hollywood sensibility and his reasoning is partially personal and partially pragmatic: ‘In the 1960s and 1970s audiences wanted to watch serious movies seriously. But audiences and their expectations have altered, and the era of art films is over; like indie movies, they are finding it increasingly tricky to find screens and pick up word-of-mouth enthusiasm.’ While it is somewhat overly dramatic to declare the era of the art film as being completely over, Nowra has identified the current shift that contemporary audiences have made away from certain types of films.

This shift is not unique to Australia. Globally, films that do not fit the Hollywood mould are suffering from low audiences. In a recent editorial in UK film journal Sight & Sound, Nick James discusses how independent or ‘specialist’ cinema is now strongly marginalised and resisted in mainstream contemporary culture, when fifteen years ago this was not the case. In the same edition, Nick Roddick notes that even during the Depression when Hollywood strongly focused on producing escapist films, social realist films that had something of significance to say were still supported. This is not the situation now.

The Boys are Back

The Boys are Back

Ever since the rise of ‘critic-proof’, ‘high-concept’ cinema in the 1980s, there has been an increasingly global demand for unchallenging event films that are difficult for non-Hollywood studios to compete with in terms of scale and resources. During the development of the American independent film in the 1990s, smaller specialised films once again coexisted with big Hollywood productions and both had audiences to cater to. Not by accident, the ‘new’ interest in ‘alternative’ films in English-speaking countries meant there was once more an interest in Australia for home-grown films, and the 1990s saw diverse success stories such as Strictly Ballroom, Muriel’s Wedding and The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

However, instead of independent and non-American films surviving as a competitive alternative to Hollywood, they were absorbed into the system. In his 2004 book Down and Dirty Pictures: Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film, Peter Biskind examines how studios such as Miramax capitalised on the interest in foreign and independent film by buying, often re-editing and then strategically marketing inoffensive European films such as Chocolat in a way that gave them an art-house credibility while simultaneously targeting mainstream audiences. The dilution of genuinely alternative and specialised cinema was made complete when Miramax then started making its own mainstream-masquerading-as-art-house films such as Shakespeare in Love.

Mao's Last Dancer

Mao’s Last Dancer

‘Art-house’ and ‘American indie’ have since virtually become Hollywood genres, while genuine independent and specialised cinema, including the majority of Australia’s output, has been pushed right to the fringe. It therefore seems that the only way Australian filmmakers can compete with the current cultural demand is to mimic a blockbuster, as Baz Luhrmann did with Australia, or to mimic a mainstream-masquerading-as-art-house film, as with Mao’s Last Dancer. Indeed, both Australia and Mao’s Last Dancer were the best performers at the Australian box office in 2009, despite being overall critically considered very middle-of-the-road.

So is this the solution? Should Australian filmmakers stop fighting against the tide and simply give in to the current demand for bland and mediocre cinema? Theoretically, in the short term such an approach could yield results. In the long run it would be devastating, as the survival of the Australian film industry depends on the continual production of excellent films in order to regain its sustained credibility. The problem at the moment is not the quality and content of the films but the public perception.

There are many Australians who are capable of appreciating high-quality cinema but who are kept away from locally produced films by the tidal wave of negativity. As for the audiences who do crave mediocrity, deliberately making bland, saccharine and trashy films for them would be like feeding an obese child junk food instead of encouraging them to develop a more selective diet. Besides, it is not as if Australia is lacking in widely available, imported rubbish.



The obvious solution would be to make films that have both a commercial appeal but also depth and credibility. That is something far easier said than done, and the disappointing performance of a widely acclaimed film such as Balibo is evidence of its difficulty, especially within Australia. Balibo’s star power, historical interest and combination of the political thriller and buddy film genres should have made it a hit. It contained a similar level of energy, characterisation, action, tight writing and dynamic direction to Bruce Beresford’s much loved and admired 1980 film ‘Breaker’ Morant. Yet despite the awards and glowing reviews, Australian audiences largely overlooked Balibo. Perhaps they stayed away due to the ‘heavy’ subject matter or because of the ‘depressing’ inevitable conclusion. Such rationalisations do not, however, account for the success of Hollywood films such as Schindler’s List, Hotel Rwanda or even Titanic. Balibo was the victim of an overall negative attitude towards – or, at best, disinterest in – Australian films that aspire to be something other than easy crowd-pleasers.



The obsession with film as commerce is doing more harm than good. Despite what Ginnane suggests, funding for Australian films is already very commercially driven, with new projects needing to meet a guaranteed level of assured foreign sales and distribution before funding is awarded. The current regulations created significant setbacks for Fred Schepisi to receive the money he required to begin production on The Eye of the Storm. Not only is Schepisi a successful filmmaker both in Australia and Hollywood, but his film is also an adaptation of a Patrick White novel starring Charlotte Rampling, Geoffrey Rush and Judy Davis. If such a project struggles to appear suitably commercial within the current regulations, what would it be like if those regulations become even more weighed towards commercial demands?

Another ‘solution’ that is often put forward is for Australia to make more genre films. Ginnane certainly argues for more genre films over what he describes as ‘literally hundreds of social realist Australian films [that] fail’. This is a rather incredible statement considering that one of 2009’s biggest success stories was the social realist Samson and Delilah, which Ginnane himself applauds, without realising the irony.

Ginnane seems confused not only about what social realism is but also about the definition of genre, although his understanding does coincide with the common misperception that genre means science fiction, horror and exploitation. A genre film is, in fact, any film containing specific narrative and stylistic ‘rules’ that filmmakers adhere to in order to meet specific audience expectations.

Beautiful Kate

Beautiful Kate

If we use the correct definition of genre then we can see that most Australian films are genre films, although some conform more strongly to genre conventions than others. Making a film that does not follow a set genre is extremely difficult. In fact, part of the problem with Australian cinema until recently has been the lack of diversity, due to funding bodies giving money to films that conform to the genre of a recent box office hit. This in turn means that too many overly cautious and unambitious projects were getting the green light over more adventurous and interesting ones.

This tentative approach to what films should be funded, made and distributed accounts for the dominance during the 1990s of quirky romantic comedies after the popularity of Love and Other Catastrophes, all the crime films that came after Chopper and Two Hands, the large volume of Australian television personalities and stand-up comedians who had money thrown at them to try and recreate the working-class comedy magic of The Castle and, more recently, the glut of serious and ‘meaningful’ dramas aimed at older audiences post-Somersault and Lantana. The results were bland and did little to help the cause of getting Australians to see films from their own country.

Lake Mungo

Lake Mungo

However, when commentators get upset about the lack of Australian genre films, they are really saying that they’d like more of the sort of stuff that falls under the exploitation banner. The renewed interest has a lot to do with Mark Hartley’s excellent 2008 documentary Not Quite Hollywood. Hartley brilliantly drew attention to the unappreciated and forgotten Australian sex comedies, action and horror films of the 1970s and 1980s. Yet somehow this appreciation has been taken by some to mean that such films should be made again. Nowra, for instance, writes: ‘The nudity and sex of those cheap movies could be gratuitous and even misogynist, but it was mostly good fun with a strong hedonistic sense of sexual pleasure.’

Pushing aside Nowra’s dismissal of misogyny, he seems to ignore the fact that, while the clips compiled in Hartley’s film are widely entertaining and fun indulgences, the bulk of the films were not all that good. Many are, indeed, completely disposable – hardly models for contemporary commercial filmmaking.

Australia doesn’t need to make more genre films; rather, it needs to make bolder and more daring films that mess with generic expectations or defy them altogether. This comes with artistic freedom and the courage and support to do something original rather than try to appease the business-minded folk who believe that mimicking the last success will equate with new success.

Government support is also required. In a country as small as Australia, it is simply a necessity if expressions of local culture on the big screen are to continue. Attempting to not make films that are distinctive from imported Hollywood content would make the point of a national cinema redundant.

Last year, you could have been forgiven for not noticing that Australia produced so many outstanding films because too many of them undeservedly went unnoticed. For the industry to survive, Australian filmmakers need to continue to make diverse and interesting films in order to win back the public. This will not happen while critics naively call for more commercial filmmaking and while Australian film is inaccurately dismissed as all ‘doom and gloom’.

OverlandOriginally published in issue 199 (Winter 2010) of Overland and originally posted online here.

This article received the Ivan Hutchinson Award for Writing on Australian Film in the 2010 Australian Film Critics Association Film Writing Awards

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Yolngu storytelling in Ten Canoes

14 June 2010

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

Ten CanoesTen 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

Ten Canoes: Yeeralparil (Jamie Gulpilil)

Dayindi (Jamie Gulpilil)

Ten 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.

The Storyteller

The Storyteller functions as the narrator of Ten Canoes although he is a curious narrator. Like many aspects of the film, his narration does not conform to the classical Hollywood model. He is neither a nondiegetic narrator who is external to the film nor is he a diegetic narrator who exists within the film as one of its characters. Instead, he is something in between. He certainly has the omniscience of a nondiegetic narrator, and is not somebody who the audience ever sees on camera, and yet he describes his own birth as an event that is significant to the film. Sometimes he plays the part of a guide, lowering his voice as if he is actually in the scene and does not want to alert the characters to his presence. The Storyteller’s style of narration alternates between being serious and playful, much like the film itself. Sometimes he conversationally talks to the audience directly and sometimes his narration is detached and observational like a documentary narrator. He is even sometimes contradictory, telling us “all the parts of the story have to be told for proper understanding”, while admitting that bits of the story are missing, as it is so old. The blurred boundaries between his role as detached guide for the audience and some kind of hidden character within the film helps to establish a link between the audience and the film’s characters.

Internal and external experiences

Ten Canoes: Crusoe Kurddal (Ridjimiraril)

Crusoe Kurddal (Ridjimiraril)

The black and white goose hunting scenes operate as the objective, historical and exterior part of the story while the colour scenes are the subjective, mythical and internal version. Ten Canoes begins as a colour film but when we go back in time to view the Storyteller’s ancestors on their goose egg hunting expedition, the film goes to black-and-white, a technique traditionally used in cinema to indicate the past. The use of black-and-white photography in Ten Canoes has the additional importance of being inspired by the photographs taken by the anthropologist Dr Donald Thomson, who worked in Arnhem Land in the mid-1930s. Thomson had lived with Yolngu people for several months and his photo documentation of their daily lives is an important record of their traditional culture. Many of Thomson’s photographs are treasured by the contemporary descendents of his subjects.

[Thomson’s photographs] have been consumed by the [Yolngu] culture, become part of it. There’s such a concept as “Thomson Time”, fondly remembered. The web of kinship is complex: everyone is related to someone in the photographs, and everyone takes pride in them. They are their continuity, their history. [ii]

To further capture the essence of Thomson’s photography in the goose egg hunting scenes, there is very little camera movement. Shots are either static or the camera movement is extremely slow and gentle. The camera never gets too close to the subjects either and most shots of the goose egg hunting expedition are from a distance, never getting much closer than a medium shot. This slightly detached and cinematically traditional style of cinematography certainly heightens the documentary feel of these sections and provides a wonderful contrast to the stylistic overload of the next layer of storytelling – Ridjimiraril and Yeeralparil’s story.

Ten Canoes: Minygululu (Peter Minygululu)

Minygululu (Peter Minygululu)

As Minygululu begins to tell Dayindi about Ridjimiraril and Yeeralparil, there is a gradual tracking shot from left to right that gradually transforms from black-and-white into colour to indicate that we are now being taken right back in time to the mythical times. Using colour to indicate an age that is even older than the black-and-white scenes of the goose egg hunt, gives these scenes a magical quality. The camera is now always moving, either ‘floating’ through the bush to follow the characters or moving around a character if they are standing still. This sometimes graceful and sometimes disorientating constant movement gives these scenes a sense of serenity and otherworldliness. Characters frequently speak directly into the camera giving the audience the impression that they are immersed in the world of the film and being addressed directly by the characters. Magic Realism is also used in many sequences in this part of the story. For example, during the payback ceremony Ridjimiraril and Yeeralparil become transparent because, ‘They danced so hard, they were nearly invisible’. Ridjimiraril’s death dance sequence is also a heavily stylised sequence that emphasises the link between the tangible world and the spirit world that Ridjimiraril is about to enter.

Many shots from the mythical parts of Ten Canoes are from the point-of-view of various characters. What they imagine has happened, or will happen, is depicted on screen with the same amount of narrative importance as the scenes depicting actual events. These are also some of the most vibrant sequences in the film. The sequence when the men discuss how they will rescue Ridjimiraril’s wife Nowalingu (Frances Djulibing) is an example of subjective storytelling. As each man discusses a possible plan they are shown in close-up against a blank background as if they have been removed from the world and are now in an imaginary universe. Their various ideas come to life on screen in a series of bold camera angles such as birds-eye-views and dramatic camera movement where the camera rushes into the action as if it were one of the men rushing in.

Ten Canoes: Birrinbirrin (Richard Birrinbirrin) and Ridjimiraril (Crusoe Kurddal)

Birrinbirrin (Richard Birrinbirrin) and Ridjimiraril (Crusoe Kurddal)

The use of Magical Realism, imagined sequences and cinematic techniques that convey subjectivity serve to unearth a core message in the film regarding the dangers of false perception. It is a universal message and in Ten Canoes it manifests as the tragic series of events that result from Ridjimiraril’s anger, paranoia and jealousy over the disappearance of Nowalingu. The Stranger (Michael Dawu) is suspected as the person responsible for kidnapping Nowalingu and he is depicted as somebody different from Ridjimiraril’s people. He is first shot suspiciously from a distance so that even the audience cannot get a proper look at him. He suspiciously has his penis covered, unlike Ridjimiraril’s people, and he has a nervous tick. When Ridjimiraril and some of the other men discuss the possibility of The Stranger doing spells on them, the film visually depicts these imagined crimes as if they were so. The fear and paranoia of the men becomes real in this subjective part of the film. Although Ridjimiraril later imagines an ideal scenario where The Stranger agrees to help him find Nowalingu, the self-perpetuating social fears are too strong, resulting in Ridjimiraril killing an innocent man.

When writing about the Yolngu way of storytelling Caroline Josephs comments, ‘Outside or exterior experiences will always be parallelling interior internal experiences in symbolic ways, in feeling states and in states of mind.’[iii] In Ten Canoes the interior/subjective story of Ridjimiraril and Yeeralparil is paralleled to the exterior/objective story of the men of the goose-hunting trip. One is a story being told within the other, the Storyteller gives equal importance to both stories, the same actor plays Dayindi and Yeeralparil and there are strong visual links. The most striking visual link is the shot of Ridjimiraril, Yeeralparil and the other men on their canoes in the swamp, waiting for the payback ceremony, which matches the shot of the men on the goose-hunting trip.

Beyond the story

Ten CanoesThe final key to understanding the power of the storytelling within Ten Canoes is to be aware that the stories contained within the film do not just resonate through the different layers of the film, but resonate beyond the film itself. Within the film audiences will recognise aspects of daily life that reflects their own. There is generational conflict, sexual tensions, everyday routine and jokes about sex and bodily functions. The storytelling is different, the culture is different but it is the elements of sameness that make Ten Canoes such an engaging film.

The lessons that Dayindi learns from his brother’s story are ones that apply universally. Firstly Dayindi learns that it is dangerous to allow your prejudices and perception of events to become compromised, like Ridjimiraril did. The other two lessons are very simple lessons. Firstly, there is the Judo Christian, ‘thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife’ lesson about not desiring the wife of another man. The other lesson Dayindi learns is the well-known lesson, ‘Be careful what you wish for’. Dayindi’s predicament at the end of the film where he is torn between the demands of Ridjimiraril’s wives illustrates this lesson quite plainly. These lessons themselves are not so much of interest as the fact that they are so universal. What is more significant is that the layered and interrelated storytelling technique of the Yolngu people contains values that resonate with white audiences, or balanda, as the Yolngu would say.

Ten Canoes does not have a closed resolution, which is something The Storyteller jokes about when he borrows the famous fairy tale line, ‘And they all lived happily ever after’ before once more laughing and then explaining that he actually does not know what happened afterwards. The story is left open, as it has no fixed resolution. It therefore has the power to live beyond the time and place that it was set because the importance and resonance of the story is not confined by the events it describes. This gives the story a sense of timelessness and makes it universally relevant beyond the confines of the film.

[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 http://epress.anu.edu.au/nts02_citation.html
[ii] Ten Canoes Press Kit, http://www.tencanoes.com.au/tencanoes/pdf/Background.pdf, page 6
[iii] Josephs, op. cit., p174


Originally published in issue 54 (Winter 2009) of Screen Education.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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Film as Text: Ten Canoes

3 June 2009

[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.

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Notes on film: The Leopard

13 October 2008

“Something had to change for everything to stay as it was.”

The Leopard (Il Gattopardo) is a historical epic of breathtaking scope and beauty. It is an acclaimed adaptation of the 1958 novel, by Sicilian writer Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, about the unification of Italy in the late 19th century. This 1963 film adaptation is a highpoint in the later part of an illustrious career of the Italian filmmaker Luchino Visconti, demonstrating his classical sense of aestheticism and modern approach to storytelling. Watching The Leopard is an absolute feast for the senses as Visconti’s camera captures all the detail and beauty in the Sicilian landscape and buildings that the film takes place in.

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