“Ten Canoes”: Anthropology Through Art

Focusing on Australian Aborigines, the movie is a moral tale praising the traditions and the humanity of one of the oldest cultures on earth.

10 canoes
Ten Canoes is an ode to Aboriginal mythology and culture and focuses on their natural environment. — ©Fandango Australia

One of cinema’s most powerful goals is to educate. Ten Canoes does the job and initiates its viewers into the culture of Australian Aborigines with an anthropological tale, from their moral code to their religious beliefs … without forgetting their profound human emotions. With its stunning shots of the wild and untamed nature in the Arnhem Land, a historical region in the Northern territory of Australia, the multi-award winning film takes the form of a moral tale. It looks closely at the themes of forbidden love and the sense of justice in a tale with Shakespearean twists. It is also an ode to tradition and rituals in ancient Aboriginal society. A piece of art that delivers the plain and pure truth on Aboriginal people’s way of life before the first settlers put ashore. Contrasting these same settlers’ preconceptions and 19th century anthropological studies on Australian natives, this dramatic comedy acts as a sort of ‘counter’ anthropological study through the lens … of an actual camera.

An ode to tradition and to Aboriginal mythology and culture

A river weaving through the bush, framed by palm trees, mangrove trees and eucalyptus trees and the voice of renowned Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil as the narrator: the first shot of the film sets the tone. This land, not yet colonised, is still as luxuriant and untouched as, the Aboriginal Dreamtime legend says, the very moment the Great Spirit Baiame opened his eyes and formed mountains, trees, animals and people as well as “laws of life, traditions, songs and culture” (Wilson-Miller, n.d.). This is precisely what Ten Canoes’ director Rolf de Heer seeks to show in the purest, simplest form by focusing its narrative on an Aboriginal tribe and the way they live and, by that, casting away old, racially-biased anthropological research from the 19th century.

Ten Canoes accentuates the deep humanity of  Australian Aborigines.”

Aboriginal people were not offered a treaty asking consent for ownership of their then colonised land. Then British colonisers deemed them unworthy of it for they did not cultivate the soil and did not have any governmental or religious structure as described by Lieutenant James Cook. Yet these beliefs are dispelled through the anthropological insights this mystical, moral tale unfolds.

A set of laws and a sense of justice

Where can one not find any form or sense of ‘governmental’ structure when Aboriginal law states that if a murder is committed by one member of a tribe on a member from another tribe, justice needs to be done? That is exactly what happens to Ridjmiraril when he slays a member from a different tribe and has to go through a payback, a formal and ritualised form of punishment. He has to dance his way through spears thrown at him from members of the aggrieved tribe, and justice is paid when one of the spears hits him. And just like the 19th century European etiquette, men and women with specific status and ties to one another cannot be seen talking to each other.code of moral values, in fact, structures this society.

Spears and justice
Aborigines follow a strict moral code, spears are thrown and justice is done in Ten Canoes. — ©Fandango Australia

Sorcery: a belief in spirits denied by white settlers as a proper form of religion

Rituals and the belief in spirits are the cornerstones of Aboriginal society. Ten Canoes shows how sorcery is deeply rooted in Aboriginal society. An outsider was said to bring bad spirits to the members of the tribe, stealing their souls and chanting curses. When Ridjimiraril feels his death coming, he proceeds to a ritual death dance around the camp fire to free his spirit. This all in all shows the profoundly religious – or mysticalstructure of traditional Aboriginal society, which was nonetheless disregarded by British settlers. Ten Canoes accentuates the deep humanity of  Australian Aborigines. They believe in spirits no less than Europeans.

Shakespearean twists and the very nature of human beings

In its search to bind anthropology to the art of cinema, Ten Canoes does involve Shakespearean-influenced twists and displays major and minor tragedies humans go through. In 19th century anthropological studies, Aboriginal people were deemed beastly and wild and even compared to monkeys by settlers – or simply seen as a ‘lower’ form of men, a non-evoluted group within mankind. In the 1930s, the idea that they were incapable of love and kinship sustainability was still strong in white Australian’s minds. Ten Canoes defies the old image of Aborigines as savages and barbaric fools. It is all but impossible to notice how emotional the characters are: jealousy is involved when it comes to Yeeralparil courting his brother’s youngest wife, and despair plays a large part in the plot as one of Ridjimiraril’s wives, Nowalingu, is kidnapped by another tribe. These different narratives portray the definite and profound humanity of a tribe plunging into the typical ‘sins’ and traits of what many different societies have defined since the dawn of times: power thirst, anger, gluttony, greed, revenge, lust …

Love
Jealousy and love are at the core of this dramatic comedy: here, the characters of Ridjmiraril and his wife Nowalingu are displaying affection to each other. — ©Madman Entertainment

An anthropological movie to help reshape biased views on Aborigines

With the acute reproduction of anthropologist Donald Thompson’s photographs of Aborigines, Ten Canoes goes beyond being a simple dramatic comedy. Anthropology is a social science that has, in the past, always been embedded in a specific society’s values at a given time (Europeans’ views on Black people and the common idea among white people that ‘black’ meant ‘dirty’ while ‘white’ conveyed a pure, cultured meaning) (Glover, 1998). Yet with the narrative of Ten Canoes, all of the openly racially-biased results of anthropological experiences conducted in the 19th century are put aside – the size of the skull showing different levels of intelligence in white people and Aborigines, the tests made to ‘measure’ the native communities’ intelligence … In a simple though effective way, the humanity of an everlastingly but now oppressed people is put into light through the seventh art.

Emeraude Monnier

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