Had director Rolf de Heer camcorded the complicated and often comic process of making Ten Canoes, the resulting documentary may well have been more interesting than the actual film. Audiences won't have production notes handed to them as they leave the theatre, so here's the backstory of this adventure in cinema.
De Heer had cast Aussie screen star David Gulpilil (Walkabout, Crocodile Dundee, Rabbit Proof Fence) in his film The Tracker. Before shooting began, the actor invited the director to his home, a village called Ramingining, founded in the early 1970s to accommodate indigenous people from Australia's Northern Territory. The two discussed the idea of making a movie in the area--a western, perhaps, or a sequel to The Tracker-but then Gulpilil showed de Heer a famous photograph of Aboriginals from the 1930s. The black-and-white picture captured a group of ten men in bark canoes hunting for geese and their eggs in a swamp. This tableau became the inspiration for the tale that evolved into Ten Canoes.
And evolve it did. De Heer invited the locals to contribute ideas to the project, meant to be steeped in tradition, but he found himself consulting an ever-widening circle of script doctors eager to offer dramatic advice on goose-egg gathering. He persuaded his collaborators that the narrative needed more provocative fare--necessary to appeal to Western audiences, the notes point out--so he used the canoe scenes, filmed in black-and-white to evoke the photographs, as a Chaucerian device to frame a titillating (but relevant) tale of lust, murder and revenge.
To wit: Sometime in the distant past, ten men set out to build canoes for the annual swamp romp. During the hike to the forest to harvest bark, old Minygululu (Peter Minygululu) learns that his younger brother Dayindi (Jamie Gulpilil, son of David) has the hots for his third, and rather nubile, wife. The elder decides to set the randy youth straight ("to teach him the proper way") by reciting an ancestral story he hopes will act as a prophylactic of the spirit, so to speak.
The story within a story, filmed in color so we can distinguish the distant past from the long, long ago, also involves a tribal elder (Crusoe Kurddal), an eager younger brother (Gulpilil in a double role) and a fetching third wife (Cassandra Baker). But this version of events introduces a mysterious and vaguely threatening stranger, an abduction, a revenge killing, payback, and a moral: Do not covet thy brother's nubile wife, for you may also get the older, importuning ones in the bargain.
This cautionary tale takes an awfully long time to tell, or at least we are meant to think so, for Minygululu draws it out while the men construct their watercraft, build tree houses for their base camp, spear geese, and retrace their route back home. De Heer had to deal with bigger issues than narrative plausibility, however.
Remember the story consultants? They decided they also had clear claim to be cast in the film. Well and good, agreed de Heer, who was willing to work with amateurs in these unusual circumstances. But the Yolngu had further stipulations. Actors playing characters could only have the same relationships in make-believe as in real life. Thus, a Yirritja man had to be cast opposite a Dhua woman if they were to play husband and wife in the film, according to custom. The rules often narrowed the talent pool to one villager, who got the part regardless of age, looks or (one cringes at the thought) union stipulations.
To complicate matters further, Ramingining residents speak a variety of languages and dialects, so communication between director and actors often involved multiple translations...spoken, written and gestured. Then there was a little matter of culture disconnection. Despite their enthusiasm for their heritage, the Yolngu had little practice making canoes in recent years--make that decades--so they had to reinvent the keel, taking their cues from the photographs that inspired the movie in the first place.
De Heer persevered, even after David Gulpilil, "for complex reasons," pulled out of the project. (He remained connected to the film as the off-camera storyteller.) To the director's considerable credit, Ten Canoes turned out a pretty good film, full of humor and good will. De Heer showed remarkable poise by adapting to the odd circumstances--he must have chewed on if not swallowed a lot of ego--and a genuine ability to coax good performances from untrained actors. And like so many Australian directors, he merged the continent's interesting landscape with his movie's action seamlessly. In any case, Australia is always fun to look at.
Whether de Heer conveyed the Yolngu's tribal life with anthropological accuracy is another matter, but he certainly managed to make a film that testifies to the multicultural mood of our own moment in time.