10 Canoes drifts leisurely back to the beginning of creation and provides a charming waterhole-to-waterhole history of the ancient beginnings of Australia’s Ganlabingu (magpie goose people) clan. It demonstrates conclusively that, yet again, there’s nothing new under the sun of humanity, but also makes us wish we’d adopted the “payback” law of these Arafura swamp canoe makers and hunters. Sadly, if white-man-the-explorer (who made a speciality of stomping on all manner of indigenous, “savage” peoples) had—instead—adopted some of his victims’ customs and mores, the world might be a much safer, less violent place today.
The tale of two brothers (the eldest has three wives and leads the tribe, the younger lusts after the most nubile of those but must live in “single-man” camp until his first marriage) is languorously imparted by a storyteller (David Gulpilil) and spun out in a teasing, occasionally dead-in-the-water voiceover. In a new twist to the notion of brotherly love, it’s important to realize that should one of them die, the other automatically inherits any and all wives.
Thanks to Ian Jones’ truly spectacular cinematography (the opening overhead sequence a pleasure with every frame) we’re immersed in vivid detail behind the scenes of a self-sustaining culture that eschews clothing, hunts for geese and their eggs (sleeping on log platforms in the trees while doing so to avoid the crocodiles, er, hello there Steve Irwin).
Sounds idyllic—what could go wrong?
Elder brother, Minygululu, decides to answer his impatient sibling’s (Dayindi, given a generally well-balanced mixture of innocence and desire by the camera-engaging Jamie Gulpilil) “When will I get a wife?” by providing a history lesson as the ten canoeists head out on Dayindi’s first and richly metaphorical egg hunt.
Before you can say “plot points” it’s the beginning of time. Dayindi’s ancestors are lead by Ridjimiraril (newcomer Crusoe Kurddal) who, conveniently, also boasts three wives and a younger single brother, Yeeralparil (also played by Jamie Gulpilil). A stranger appears without the usual custom of announcing his presence. (Ominously, his penis is covered; “You can never trust a man with a small prick,” offers one of the clan in explanation.) Following his brief visit where he offers to trade magic objects but is summarily sent on his way after a brief meal, the local Sorcerer (Philip Gudthaykudthay, sporting an impressive nosepiece) scours the area for any imported trickery (where we learn that if your shit is found and burned by another black magic practitioner your soul could take its own dump). Not long after that, wife No. 2 Nowalingu (Frances Djulibing) vanishes without a trace.
The men meet to discuss the possibilities. As the camera circles the elders we’re given a marvellous example of the beginnings of committee work and how loudest-voice “democracy” began. Time passes, life goes on as normal. An apparent sighting of the missing wife prompts a war party but bloodshed is avoided in this case of mistaken identity. Many other conflicts have erupted for less. Another jump to an errant conclusion by the perpetually distraught Ridjimiraril results in the murder of an innocent man while taking a shit.
Justice quickly catches up. Ridjimiraril must participate in Markaratta. Members of the slain man’s tribe, by law, can throw their spears at the guilty party and his partner until one of them is wounded or killed. From here on out, the film shifts into its own magical realm. The flood of spears seems to fly through, but miss the two bothers, who have opted to stand together and face the consequences of the elder’s error. They dodge and jump away from the deadly implements until Ridjimiraril’s age betrays him. Down but not out, he walks with agonized pride back to his village.
But this time, not even his eldest/wisest (convincingly bossy and stoic as required) wife’s calm kills the Sorcerer’s chants, Ridjimiraril’ prepares to return to the waterhole. The ensuing Dance of Death is a marvel of movement, music and belief. The scene is the tour de force for directors Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigirr and the long-awaited payoff to the meandering tale.
Throughout it all, the commonality of all humans—from fart jokes to an obsessive sweet tooth—resonates and entertains. All the sadder then, that when push comes to shove, the voracious appetite of the modern world for material goods causes “us” to laugh at the simplicity of other cultures or “assimilate/liberate” them out of existence should they fail to follow our laws.
See the film for beauty and fun, but dig a little deeper into the subtext for its timely message. JWR