Ten Canoes: A timely Release
A reverent hush descends over the theatre in the opening scenes of Rolf de Heer’s Ten Canoes. The entirely non-indigenous audience is watching and listening with a particular fascination, one with long traditions, that of Western Moderns appraising the difference of the 'Native'.
We already know that Ten Canoes is set in pre-contact times, some of the narrative takes place in the dreaming. This shimmering realm of myth, of law-making, of relation to place, is for most Australians an intriguing yet inscrutable descriptor of Aboriginal identity, a realm of knowledge that can only be accessed from our side of the colonial divide, our side of the story.
To be taken into a story of pre-contact Aboriginal life, which entirely absents white Australia, promises all the pleasures of our own dream of Aborginality, of an imagined pre-modern human purity, uncorrupted by industrialism and capitalism, a realm of natural harmony. Whatever Rolf de Heer may have intended it is going to difficult for Australians to shake off their investment in the noble savage, the native belle, the piccaninny.
With utmost respect the non-indigenous patrons take in the opening scene. Naked perfectly fit men, with all the gravitas of millennia of tradition, stride out in single file to hunt. Very intently we watch as the trailing man calls them to halt. This is surely serious but unfathomable “business” of some sort. “I refuse to walk at the back” he declares. Has some law been violated? Is this a challenge to customary command? Has the hunt lost its way, or an ancestor made a sign? “Somebody is farting” he says, and audible relief staggers down the aisles.
If we came to Ten Canoes expecting an anthropological field study de Heer punctures that inflated fancy with a fart. The day to day and its interplay with a dreaming that is inhabited, not by apparitions, but by people we recognise, this is the province of Ten Canoes. Its storyline is carried by events in the dreaming, and yet the ordinary and imperfect, human foible and fragility, drive the unhurried narrative.
If we are alert to the things that set pre-contact Aborigines apart from us, de Heer affirms that one real difference lies in the manner of storytelling. The gentle unwinding of events, which include murder, abduction, jealousy and longing, stands in contrast to the addictive heightened emotion of epic Hollywood.
De Heer is conscious of the lenses whites have focused on Aboriginal people. Many of his scenes step out of the dramatic yet emotionally contained tableau of anthropologist and photographer Donald Thomson. The achievement of Ten Canoes is the way it peoples Aboriginality with unexpected equanimity.
Racial difference has been sensational for Europeans. It has been a central fascination for explorers, antiquarians, colonial administrators, settlers, missionaries, and ethnologists. It has spawned skullduggery and museum displays, international expositions and freak shows, tea towels and comic books.
De Heer’s film is a timely release. The latest sensation has been Aboriginal family violence. There is another long tradition in white perceptions of Aboriginal communities - the fear of ‘primitive’ purity being corrupted by modernity and white deviance. For the earliest white writers, brawling Aborigines were shocking mimics of their own excess. Yet they also saw violence as inherent in the ‘savage’ and not as the manifestation of displaced peoples suffering loss of livelihood and status, and loss of the only place to be who they knew themselves to be.
Violence in Aboriginal communities is our Dorian-Gray-portrait of race relations that we would rather keep in a remote outback attic. Ten Canoes intervenes in the sensation, and manages to invoke a kind of fascination that is not about spectacle but about simple recognition and ordinary empathy.