SPOILERS THROUGHOUT. I saw 'Ten Canoes' at Cannes, and I was absolutely awestruck. Even now, almost precisely a year later, I've difficulty writing about this film without being emotionally overcome. Yes, damn it, the movie's that good, that wonderful, that miraculous.
I feel a deep attachment to this film and its subject matter. As you might guess from my email address -- Borroloola (an aboriginal settlement in the Northern Territory) -- I spent several of my formative years in Australia's outback, notably the Red Centre, Arunta and the Northern Territory, not far from where 'Ten Canoes' was filmed. I've been privileged to live with, or nearby to, members of several of the indigenous tribes from that part of Australia. The people in 'Ten Canoes' (both the actors and the roles they portray) are of the Yolngu and Gunwinggu tribes, whereas most of my own friendships in that region are with members of the Nunggubuyu and Gunbalanya groups. All of these tribes are centred in the Arnhem Land region, so I recognised much of the land (and language) in this wonderful movie.
I was surprised that this film's English title has a number in it, because the Arnhem Land natives did not use number words until recently. They quantify an object by naming it as many times as needed. For instance, the Nunggubuyu word for 'day' is 'jami', so 'three days' would be 'jami jami jami'. This system works well enough for quantities of as many as five (a hand's worth): for more than five of anything, they use a word for 'many'.
It turns out that the title 'Ten Canoes' is largely irrelevant and mostly symbolic. Ten Yolngu warriors are on an expedition to steal goose eggs from their nests (insert 'poached eggs' joke here). To travel by water, the warriors must construct one canoe for each man. But the title refers to the ten men themselves, or their physical bodies: vessels (canoes) in which their souls travel the (river) current of existence. (The press kit at Cannes said that this film's title was inspired by a photograph ... yet that photo is never seen in this film. My own explanation fits the circumstances just as well.)
The film's narration by David Gulpilil is perfect. He speaks his lines in an accent containing just enough Strine to link the action to modern Australia without evoking Mick Dundee or any Ocker stereotypes.
Several supernatural events occur during this film, but they're conveyed in native Australian terms, not Hollywood clichés ... so, don't expect any CGI f/x mucking up this wonderful story. The beautiful photography is entirely at the service of native Australian story-telling techniques. Even the subtle manipulation of colour, which could have been just one more gimmick, adds a dimension to the narrative.
The aboriginal actors, with their distinctive Dravidian facial structures, photograph astonishingly. Unfortunately for the film, one or two of them have modern dentition, spoiling the effect that we're witnessing events occurring thousands of years before white men's arrival in Australia. The main Gunwinggu character has a moustache just a bit too neatly trimmed. More favourably, I was delighted by a scene which shows (accurately) how these ancient men, who have no metal, are able to shave their beards.
Very credibly, their preoccupations are much as we might expect: flatulence, sex, physical urges.
Because I've done continuity work on several films, I compulsively check every movie I view (and its soundtrack) for continuity errors or anachronisms. As I watched and enjoyed 'Ten Canoes' and the beautiful footage of Arnhem Land flora and fauna, I kept checking for jet contrails, rabbit fences, bird calls by imported species, or any other signs of modern life in this movie's depiction of dawntime Australia. The flawless teeth of a couple of the actors were the only flaws in this film.
I wept with joy and delight at the beauty and narrative power of this unique and precious film. A rating of 10 out of 10 isn't good enough, but it'll have to do. If you have any passion at all for anything outside the usual Hollywood or Bollywood clichés, you must see 'Ten Canoes'.