Ten Canoes

Ten Canoes (Rolf de Heer, 2006) is Australia’s most ambitious and most expensive cross-cultural film project to date. The Balanda and the Bark Canoes (Molly Reynolds, Tania Nehme and Rolf de Heer, 2006) that takes us behind the scenes of this film to provide invaluable insight into the extraordinary processes of collaboration between Balanda (“white-fella”), director Rolf de Heer and the Yolngu people of Ramingining.

There’s an interesting exchange between two Yolngu men from Ramingining that occurs about a third of the way into The Balanda and the Bark Canoes. After some tensions in the first week on location of the Ten Canoes shoot, we see director Rolf de Heer and co-director Peter Djigirr head into town to hold a public meeting to decide if the film should go ahead. Djigirr, who plays one of the ten canoeists and who took over David Gulpilil’s role of co-director when Gulpilil pulled out of the project two weeks before the shoot began for “complex reasons”, is driving around Ramingining in a beat up 4-wheel drive heralding members of the community through a big old megaphone. This sound is crossed by the voice of an old man who says: “You should not be acting in this film. They are using you!” Aboriginal people like this old man have long since voiced their opposition to the many ways in which white filmmakers have exploited Aboriginal people and their culture. In Australia in the late 1970s, these oppositions became central to long-running debates about moral and cultural rights between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal filmmakers, cultural critics and others. (1) And, in the 1990s, we saw the introduction of protocols and guidelines for filmmakers working with Aboriginal communities by Australian film and television organizations, such as the Australian Film Commission and SBS. The problem is, even with these protocols and guidelines in place, questions of inequality, appropriation and ownership continue to recur. (2)

In 2002, the feature film Australian Rules (Paul Goldman) sparked a heated debate about these issues, in particular the thorny question of appropriation. In an SBS Insight panel discussion on this topic, Australian Rules’ director Paul Goldman asserted his right as an artist to “fictionalize”, to do what he says all creative people do: that is, “appropriate stories”. (3) Lydia Miller, prominent Indigenous actor, producer, director and former arts administrator, was also on this Insight panel. She responded to Goldman’s assertion in the following way:

I think that is the issue. It is about appropriation in some respects, because the Western notion of the artist as hero goes right up against Indigenous cultural paradigms of cultural material belonging to the community from whence it comes from.

I was reminded of Miller’s comments about the figure of the “artist as hero” when I was watching The Balanda and the Bark Canoes, for de Heer in some ways could be seen as this. He comes to Ten Canoes as a maverick director in the Australian cinema, known for his innovative art-house films, each of which differs from the one before it and each of which takes on difficult characters and subjects, including Miles Davis in Dingo (1991), cerebral palsy in Dance to My Song (1997) and frontier massacres in The Tracker (2002). In The Balanda, his narration of making Ten Canoes is delivered in a fairly lofty, “voice-of-God” mode, creating a certain distance between himself and the subject. This distance is reinforced by the opening lines of the narration, in which de Heer confesses: “For me [Ten Canoes] is the most difficult film I have ever made, in the most foreign land I’ve been too … and it is Australia.” I remember wincing slightly when I heard these lines that invoke the European (and, I would add, masculine) fantasy of the artist as adventurer-hero exploring the uncharted territories of the Other. But, as the story unfolds, de Heer emerges as a very different figure from this. He is appears as an extremely talented, resourceful and remarkably non-egotistical filmmaker who worked extremely closely with equally talented members of the Ramingining community to enable the telling of a Yolngu story in a Yolngu way. We also learn that, far from being an act of appropriation, the making of this film involved the work of reappropriation and cultural adaptation, leading to the renewal of many forms of Yolgnu culture that had previously been discontinued.

De Heer’s collaboration with the Yolngu people of Ramingining began in 2000 when Australian screen icon David Gulpilil was cast as the lead in de Heer’s film The Tracker. At their first meeting in Adelaide, Gulpilil invited de Heer to meet with him among his family in Ramingining, to see his traditional lands and to make a film with him set in this area of North East Arnhem Land. De Heer first visited Ramingining in late 2000. In 2003, he and Gulpilil began working together on a film, meeting with a number of Gulpilil’s influential contemporaries to discuss ideas for it. All agreed the film should be set in “old times”, and initially they settled on the idea of some kind of Aboriginal story that would end with the massacre of the Yolngu characters by white invaders. This plan was abandoned, however, when Gulpilil insisted that the film should centre on ten canoes. According to Gulpilil:

The film began when I showed a photograph from Donald Doctor Thomson to Rolf de Heer and said what do you think? Rolf de Heer started to write that story with Ramingining people, my people, and we started to work together.

On various occasions, de Heer has also spoken about the significance of this moment. De Heer says that at first he didn’t understand why they needed ten canoes but, when Gulpilil showed him his photograph of a group of ten Yolngu men standing in bark canoes on the Arufura swamp, he immediately recognized that this image was what he calls “profoundly cinematic”:

It spoke of a world of long ago, where things were different, life as different to anything that could be imagined by almost any Balanda anywhere. To enter that world would be the essence of real cinema […] the film had started to form. (4)

Ten Canoes

Returning to Adelaide with this new film forming in his mind, de Heer began researching the Thomson photograph. He discovered Thomson took some four thousand black-and-white glass plate photographs of Yolngu people and culture in the mid-1930s, and these images, known as the Thomson Collection, are held in Museum Victoria. De Heer undertook to study the collection, looking at more than 2,000 photographs. But in his discussions with Gulpilil and others in Ramingining, he also discovered something else. While these photos were taken at a time when anthropologists collected such images with the aim of “preserving” for science what they considered to be a dying culture, they have since been reappropriated by the Yolngu people as a new form of cultural memory. (5) For this reason, de Heer was able to use the photographs in the scriptwriting process as triggers for discussion – “incident”, he says, “could be derived from each image […] each photo had, in some way, a story that illuminated the whole of the endeavour”.

It is one thing to use photographs as an aid to memory, it’s quite another thing to translate the stories emerging from these photographs into cinematic language. De Heer has identified three main difficulties he and his collaborators had to overcome in order to do this. First, there was the desire of the Yolngu participants to make goose-egg hunting (depicted in the Thomson photo of the ten canoeists) central to the film. They saw the film as an opportunity to revive this practice, which had been discontinued for many years. The practicalities of this presented major problems from a film producers’ point of view. It meant the film had to be shot on location in some of the most dense areas of the Arufura swamp, country known for its extreme physical conditions, not to mention mosquitoes, leeches and crocodiles. The decision to make goose-egg hunting the main event also raised a problem for de Heer as a scriptwriter about how to make this film dramatic. How could he satisfy the Yolngu taste and cultural requirements while at the same time make something that Western audiences would want to see. Lastly, for de Heer, there was the problem of meeting the Yolngu requirement that this story about “old times” be true to their cultural history. This was a problem because de Heer had been contracted to make a colour film while Yolngu cultural history, which is now represented in/through the Thomson photographs, is in “black and white”. All these problems were overcome, however, when de Heer introduced the device of having the main dramatic part of the story set in dreaming time, which, according to Yolngu culture, is a time when anything is allowed to happen. As a result, Ten Canoes is a stunningly beautiful film that switches between an unspecified historical time, which is depicted in black and white and, through the use of static frames, mimics the Thomson photographs, and dreaming time, which is depicted in a magical swirl of colour and movement.

De Heer’s decision to run with a form that involves a layering of time is just one of the many ways in which the use of culturally appropriate forms of storytelling led to production decisions that might not be taken on a non-Yolngu film. In The Balanda, we learn that the film was cast in a Yolngu way. For the Yolngu participants, it was crucial that characters that are meant to be related in the film should be played by people who have proper kin relations in real life. This approach goes up against Western practices of casting, including the role of the director as the person who makes the final decision about the cast and the use of factors such as appearance and talent when he/she decides who will be cast. But this approach has also led to many standout performances. Richard Birrinbirrin, for example, almost certainly would not have considered for a role in this film if the Western criteria for casting in historical dramas had been applied. This is because of his appearance. He’s got a very fat belly and this would have been regarded as inconsistent with the historical setting. For cultural reasons, however, Yolngu people involved in the film expected Birrinbirrin to have a role, forcing de Heer to invent the comedic part of Birrinbirrin, the old man who is always after honey and eats too much. As it turns out, this is an inspired part, the source of a great deal of the film’s humour and appeal.

The desire of all involved to tell the story of the ten canoes in a Yolngu way is also reflected in the use of Yolngu languages in the film. When Philip Noyce was asked why he didn’t use Aboriginal languages throughout his feature film, Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002), he said that he didn’t think mainstream audiences would pay to see a subtitled film of this kind. The producers of Ten Canoes were, it seems, prepared to take this risk and their gamble has paid off. One of the real attractions of the film is that it is the first feature film to be made in an Aboriginal language (predominately Ganalbingu, but also some Mandalpingu). As a result, there are several versions of the film. The version released in Australia is subtitled in English and has a narration spoken in English by David Gulpilil. International versions of the film will use subtitles in various languages for both the dialogue and Gulpilil’s voice-over. According to de Heer, the producers’ decision to not allow any dubbing in the international versions of the film reflects the importance of language in this film to both its form and meaning. While it’s true that few people outside the Ramingining area may understand the languages spoken on screen, the film’s themes of communication, miscommunication and proper understanding prompt us to think about the importance of listening carefully to what is being said. In this way, the film leaves us with a strong sense that what we were hearing is a language that is very much alive.

Most reviews of Ten Canoes praise the way in which the film takes us back to dreaming time, what Westerners call mythic time. Less attention has been paid to the temporal aspects of the narration. Although this story of a story comes to us from another time, a time before “white-fellas”, the narration also serves to bring this story into the now time of the film’s reception. This is achieved not only through forms of direct address but also because it is performed by David Gulpilil. De Heer has talked about how the last minute decision to use Gulpilil as the narrator helped Gulpilil to reconcile with his community and this project. It also allows for a kind of playful humour in the narration that Gulpilil is well known for. There is the Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) allusion in the film’s opening, for example. There is also at times a gentle form of jibbing that Gulpulil often employs to turn questions back onto his Balanda audiences. In closing this film, the narrator/Gulpilil (and I want to insist that for many it’s the latter) says, “This is not your story. But it’s a good one just the same.” The film shares the Yolngu story with us, but we cannot own it. Gulpilil challenges us here to recognize the difference of Yolngu people and culture and to respect it, all the same.

Rolf de Heer in The Balanda and the Bark Canoes

With this is mind, I return to the scene in The Balanda where the old man’s tells co-director Peter Djigirr that this Balanda, de Heer, is using him. It seems to me that Ten Canoes is a collaborative project that has benefited greatly from the many successful collaborative projects that have gone before it, as well as the disasters. It takes great care to ensure that moral and cultural rights are respected, forging some new ground in the area of property rights that makes the Ten Canoes Agreement a sought-after model for future collaborative projects in film and other areas of cultural production. (6) But the film has also served to open up discussion on cross-cultural collaborative filmmaking to new (or should I say old?) questions, including the question about how Yolngu people in this project use film as a medium. Peter Djirrir responds to the old man’s assertion that he should not act in Ten Canoes in the following way. He says: “I will act so my grandfather will be remembered.” For Djigirr and many other members of the Ramingining community, Ten Canoes serves two main purposes. It is an opportunity for cultural renewal, providing the motive and the funds to undertake traditional practices that have been discontinued, such as the making of bark canoes. The Balanda documents just how arduous the task of making ten canoes for the film was, but also how this undertaking has in turn led to “many canoes” – that is other spin-off cultural projects. (7) This and other aspects of the production revealed in The Balanda entice us to see Ten Canoes. But they also add a great deal to our understanding of this film and film in general by giving us a glimpse of what Miller calls “Indigenous cultural paradigms” and how film is being integrated into these paradigms as a new form of Indigenous cultural memory. Michael Dawu, who plays one of the ten canoeists, describes his experience of working on the film this way:

Ten Canoes […] brings me my memory back and my energy. You wake me up. I have to thank you [Rolf] for it, because you was like this […] ‘Hey, come on, get up, you’ll have to bring your memory.’ But memory gone. ‘Here, you’ll have to follow like that then, like the old people, and you can make this one film and bring that memory back!’

Frances Djulibing, who is riveting in the role of Nowalingu, adds to this

Everything is changing, everything is going, going, gone now. The only thing the children know is some ceremony […] they not even normal kids anymore. Maybe they gonna keep this film with them so they can put it in their head.

As a cultural memory in these kids’ heads and ours, Ten Canoes takes us back to the past not in order to ‘preserve’ it, but to integrate it into the present and thus ensure a Yolngu cultural future.


  1. One of the most influential texts in this debate is Marcia Langton’s Well, I heard it on the radio and I saw it on the television: an essay for the Australian Film Commission on the politics and aesthetics of filmmaking by and about Aboriginal people and things (Sydney: Australian Film Commission, 1993). Also see Eric Michaels’ groundbreaking essays on cross-cultural media, including “For a Culture Future”, which have been edited by Paul Foss and published as Bad Aboriginal Art (University of Minnesota Press, 1994).
  2. For an excellent overview of this history and a provocative contribution to the debates on protocols, see Frances Peters-Little, “The Impossibility of Pleasing Everybody: A Legitimate Role For White Filmmakers Making Black Film”, in Australian Humanities Review.
  3. Insight, “Cultural Rights Debate”, SBS, 28 March 2002.
  4. Ten Canoes press kit, Palace Films, 2006.
  5. For a wide selection of essays on cultural appropriation, see Bruce Ziff and P. V. Rao (Eds), Borrowed Power: Essays on Cultural Appropriation (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1997).
  6. The Ten Canoes Agreement recognizes the Ramingining community’s property rights for all artefacts and sets made for the film. These materials were included in a recent multi-media art/cultural exhibition.
  7. Spin-off projects include: Eleven Canoes, a video-training project for young people in Ramingining; Twelve Canoes, a web-site project; Thirteen Canoes, a multi-media art/cultural exhibition; Fourteen Canoes, a proposed book that uses images from Ten Canoes and words by Yolngu participants to demystify the people in the Thomson photographs; Fifteen Canoes, a music preservation project; Sixteen Canoes, the restoration of the closed-circuit television set up in Ramingining; Seventeen Canoes, a video-exchange project with other remote communities; and Eighteen Canoes, now called The Balanda and the Bark Canoes, a one-hour television documentary about the effect of Ten Canoes on the community.

About The Author

Therese Davis lectures in Film and Cultural Studies at the University of Newcastle. She is the author of The Face on the Screen: Death, Recognition and Spectatorship (Intellect, 2004) and co-author with Felicity Collins of Australian Cinema After Mabo (CUP, 2004). She is currently working with Nancy Wright and Brooke Collins-Gearing on an ARC funded project on a cultural history of collaborations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous filmmakers and writers in Australia.

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