TEN CANOES          

      “One hundred and fifty spears, ten canoes, three wives… trouble.”



Directors: Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigirr
Writer: Rolf de Heer
Executive Producers: Sue Murray, Domenico Procacci and Bryce Menzies
Producer: Julie Ryan
Associate Producers: Belinda Scott, Nils Erik Nielsen, Richard Birrinbirrin
Directory of Photography: Ian Jones, ACS
Film Editor: Tania Nehme
Art Director: Beverley Freeman
Sound Designer: James Currie and Tom Heuzenroeder
Visual Effects: Jamie Hediger, Michelle Hunt and Matthew North



Cruesoe Kurrdal – Ridjimiraril
Jamie Gulpilil – Dayindi/Yeeralparil
Richard Birrinbirrin – Birrinbirrin
Peter Djigirr – Canoeist/Victim/Warrior
Peter Minygululu – Minygululu
Frances Djulibing – Nowalingu
Philip Gudthaykudthay – The Sorcerer
David Gulpilil – The Storyteller
Johnny Buniyira – Canoeist/Warrior



Release Dates: June 29, 2006
Genre: Adventure, Comedy, Drama, History, War
Production Companies: Adelaide Film Festival, Fandango Australia, Fandango, Special
     Broadcasting Service, Vertigo Productions Pty. Ltd.
Distributors:  Alamode Film (Germany, DVD)
                        Cinemien (Netherlands, Theatrical)
                        Madman Entertainment (Australia, DVD)
                        Memento Films (France, Theatrical)
                        Palace Films (Australia, Theatrical)
                        Wild Bunch (Worldwide, Theatrical)
Camera Equipment Provided By: Cameraequip Australia
Financing: Adelaide Film Festival
Sound Post Production: South Australian Film Corporation
International Sales: The Works
Running Time: 90 minutes
Country: Australia
Language: Aboriginal/English
Color: Color/Black and White
Stock: Kodak
Aspect Ratio: 2.35 : 1
Format: 35 mm
Sound Mix: Dolby Digital
Filming Locations: Arafura Swamp, Northern Territory Australia
                                 Arafura Wetlands, Northern Territory, Australia
                                 Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia
                                 Northern Territory, Australia
                                 Ramingining, Northern Territory, Australia
Budget: AUD 2,200,000
Box Office Gross: 3.3 million



Nick Prescott. June 23, 2006. “Ten Canoes” 4/22/07
“As the ravishing opening-credits images of Arnhem Land unfold in a beautiful helicopter-shot, the evocative voice of David Gulpilil tells us that we’re in for a story, his story, the story of his character’s people.”

Mark Beirne. [Date Not Provided]. “Imagining Ramingining” 4/22/07
“Fantasy, comedy and drama come together in "Ten Canoes", a riveting film that opens the nation's eyes to Aboriginal traditions, culture and spirituality.”

Paul Byrnes. July 1, 2006. “Ten Canoes: the first film to deal with Aborigines as other than an ‘issue’ is stunning” 4/22/07
“From first frame to last, it has a shimmering beauty, shifting easily between rich colour and luminous black and white, in a landscape that makes you feel humble, but its power goes deeper than that.”

Luke Buckmaster. [Date Not Provided]. “Ten Canoes” 4/22/07
“This time de Heer loosens up for the spirit of the dance – relishing the visceral, embracing customs, colouring personalities, pouring detail into inanimate objects, getting amongst the smoke and dirt; going, as they say, native.”

Jennifer Fallon. July 5, 2006. “Ten Canoes” 4/22/07
“David Gulpilil’s narration and the contemporary language of the subtitles make this very funny and accessible to everyone, and seems to make the point that while some cultures are wildly different, in matters of love and revenge, there is hardly any difference at all.”


David Stratton. June 28, 2006. “Ten Canoes Interview with Director Rolf De Heer and Actors, Jamie and David Gulpilil”. 4/23/07
Rolf De Heer: “It's, more than anything, based on the Thompson photographs, which are in black and white and which are their recorded history. It seemed wrong to diverge from that, to make that in colour, but I was contractually obligated to deliver a colour film. So I had this idea to have a story being told during a goose egg hunting expedition, and that story then is set in the mythical past.”

Mike Sexton. March 3, 2006. “Guilpilil’s Son Paddles Into Acting” (TV Program Transcript). 4/23/07
Rolf De Heer: “It's about the hardest thing I've ever done. You stand in the stamp up to your waist for six or seven hours a day and it's not very pleasant. You know, the leeches get you from the waist down, the mosquitoes from the waist up. And the croc spotters are up in the tree saying, "There's a big one coming." I've done it easier than that.”

Metro Magazine, page 152.
Bruno D. Starrs.  2007 “Sounds of Silence: An Interview with Rolf de Heer” 4/23/07
Rolf de Heer: “I don’t know how people successfully direct a film that they haven’t written
and they are not producing. I don’t know how they do it! And I can see why people
might be unhappy who’ve written a script and see what’s been done to it. Look, I
write the damn things, and direct them and I don’t completely produce them anymore,
there’s other people. If that makes me an auteur in other people’s terminologies, then

Julia Overton. [No Date Provided] “Rolf de Heer on Making Low Budget Features” 4/23/07
Rolf de Heer: “It's like Ten Canoes, my next film, which has a ridiculously low budget - ludicrous considering the variables that are necessarily there: shooting with an entirely Indigenous cast, on their own land, when all sorts of things can happen.”


The film Ten Canoes has a strong online presence. The film has a comprehensive website devoted to it (http://www.tencanoes.com.au/tencanoes/) which features the films trailer, detailed descriptions of the actors, a synopsis, press kit, a downloadable “Ten Canoes Study Guide” and “Making of Ten Canoes Study Guide”, as well as interactive activities including creating a movie poster and editing footage from the film. The site also lists valuable resources one can access to learn more about the aboriginal culture, including museums and cultural centers, websites which explain information concerning the heritage of aboriginals, efforts of reconciliation as well as information about human rights and native title.

Ten Canoes is also featured on major film websites, including The Internet Movie Database (http://www.imdb.com) and Rotten Tomatoes (http://www.rottentomatoes.com/). The Australian Film Commission Site (www.afc.gov.au) includes over 50 results when one searches using the keywords “Ten Canoes” in various areas such as New & Events, Films & Awards and Research & Policy.



            A thousand years ago, before white occupation and during the tribal times in the Northern Territory of Australia, it was goose egg gathering season. Ten men head into the forest to harvest bark for canoe making. On their way, old Minygulu learns that young Dayindu has become smitten with Minygulu’s third and youngest wife. Due to this discretion, tribal law is at risk of being broken and Minygululu proceeds to tell Dayindi a long ancestral story throughout the following days of canoe building.
The story went that long ago, just after the great flood covered the whole land, a man named Ridjimiraril lived with his three wives: wise Banalandju, jealous Nowalingu and young Munandjarra. A bit further away lives Ridjimiraril’s younger brother, Yeeralparil who has yet to obtain any wives but he has taken a fancy to Munandjarra. One day, a stranger approaches the camp and shortly after that Nowalingu disappears. Ridjimiraril is convinced his beloved wife was taken away by the stranger while the other the men have other ideas concerning why she has vanished. The final consensus is that due to her jealousy, she simply ran away. Months later a visiting uncle reports that he saw Nowalingu at a distant camp with the Stranger. Then men are roused into action, determined to confront the men at the Stranger’s camp and bring Nowalingu home. The war party sets off, leaving Yeeralparil behind. For both brother cannot go, for if the older one is killed the younger one is responsible for his wives. Yeeralparil lingers around the main camp, hoping to see Munandjarra but Banalandju keeps the two apart.
The war party returns without Nowalingu. The visiting uncle must have confused another  woman for Nowalingu everyone agrees but Ridjimiraril is convinced that it was in fact the Stranger who took his wife. Ridjimiraril continues to be deeply saddened and depressed by the situation. One day Birrinbirrin, the delightful fat old man with a constant hankering for honey, bursts into camp with the news that the Stranger has been seen nearby. Ridjimiraril tells Birrinbirrin that he just wants to talk to the Stranger but he grabs his spears nonetheless and takes off, with Birrinbirrin trailing behind. They finally see the Stranger from afar and launch a spear at him. When they come closer to investigate, they realize that they have killed the wrong person. Hearing people approach, they quickly hide the body. Apparently they did not hide the body well enough because days later Ridjimiraril and Birrinbirrin are stopped by a group of warriors, including the mysterious Stranger. The warriors know that the spearhead they found in the Stranger’s brothers body was created by Birrinbirrin and they want their proper payback. Ridjimiraril confesses and the two groups agree to a payback ceremony. For this is the law and the law must be upheld. Yeeralaparil is included in the ceremony and he argues that he should be Ridjimiraril’s payback partner. The two brothers face the spears from the aggrieved Stranger’s tribe and Ridjimiraril is speared. Justice has been done and the two groups depart, each to their respective camp.
Banalandju tends to her husbands wounds but his health continues to decline. Even the sorcerer is unable to heal him. In the last moments before his death, Ridjimiraril wobbles to his feat and dances his own death dance with an air of dignity. He then collapses and dies. After various ceremonies have been performed to honor Ridjimiraril, Yeeralparil moves into the main camp, thrilled to finally be with his Munandjarra. But he has inherited more then expected and is immediately greeted with demands from the first two wives, is completely overwhelmed and yells out in desperation.
Minygulu’s story is over and the goose egg hunters return home. Dayindi had learnt his lesson, perhaps some day he will have a wife but it won’t be someone elses.
                                                           Ridjimiraril during death dance

Personal Commentary

Despite seeming to be a simple cautionary tale about coveting another mans wife, Ten Canoes accomplishes much more. The film is a richly layered fable which covers all genres, leaving every member of the audience satisfied. Murder, jealousy and abduction intrigue us while the gentle unwinding of the events stand is stark contract to the heightened emotions of the typical Hollywood film. Although the film manages to avoid the hot topic of race relations, it manages to promote cultural understanding and acceptance through its style and use of humor. The bursts of unexpected humor aids the audience in relating to the characters while the vast landscapes and naturalistic style reminds you that this is indeed, a different time and place. Any expectation of Ten Canoes acting as an anthropological field study is immediately punctured with flatulence in the opening scene, relieving all members of the audience at once.  The most intriguing aspect is how de Heer displays the different time periods depicted in the film. The screen is saturated in color when the parable (set in the mythical past) begins and the “present” is depicted in a crisp black and white. The action switches flawlessly between the two for the remaining time. The majestic cinematography and smooth editing add another level to the film, making Ten Canoes mesmerizing to watch as well as entertaining.



            Ten Canoes was a successful film at the box office, making AUD 90,919.00 opening weekend and grossing AUD 3,057,189.00 by October 1st of 2006. Reviews of the film were overwhelmingly positive in almost every sense. As the first feature film in an Australian Aboriginal language, many filmmakers had avoided authenticity as genuine as it is found in Ten Canoes, fearing that white audiences would not embrace their work, but this was not the case here. Ten Canoes was nominated for 7 Australian Film Institute awards and won 6, including best cinematography, best direction and best film. It also won 3 Film Critics of Australia awards, 3 IF Awards, Rolf de Heer won a Special Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival and it took home Best Film Award at the Mar del Plata Film Festival. Overall, Ten Canoes was highly regarded by the Aboriginal community and embraced by the rest of Australia as well. Although the film has been out for less then a year, I feel that this film, although not extraordinarily popular globally, will be remembered as an achievement for the aboriginal community as well as an example of extraordinary filmmaking.



            The origin of Ten Canoes is a delightful one. The Arafura Swamp area is traditional to David Gulpilil, the Australian screen icon and great Indigenous performer. In 2000, David was cast lead in the film The Tracker and he invited the films director, Rolf de Heer to Ramingining to see the traditional lands, meet his family and travel the Arafura Swamp. De Heer accepted and the two of them spent the time talking, eating and learning to understand eachother. During filming of The Tracker, David invited Rolf to make a film in Ramingining, any film whatsoever he told him.
 In June 2003, Rolf called David about making a film together, David could star in it as well as act as co-director and it would all be shot in the traditional lands of his people, in their language. The initial discussions concerning the film included David’s influential contemporaries, such as Richard Birrinbirrin and Bobby Bunungurr.  Many ideas were throw out but on the morning of Rolf’s departure, David came to see him and stated “We need ten canoes”. Rolf stared at him blankly and said “David, we don’t even know what the film is about, how can we need ten canoes?” David left and then reappeared a half an hour later with a seventy year old, black and white photo. Rolf took one look at it and said “you’re right, we need ten canoes”.
It was a Dr. Donald Thomson photograph, depicting 10 aboriginal men on their bark canoes drifting through a swamp.  Thomson was an anthropologist who worked in central and north-eastern Arnhem Land In the mid-1930s when life for aboriginals was still quite traditional and barely influenced by the coming of white people. There had been wars against the Yolngu people of Arnhem hand as well as massacres of them, but they had never been conquered and thus had retained their traditional lifestyle. Thomson left a legacy of importance. A brilliant photographer, his collection includes four thousand black and white glad plate photographs of various aspects of Yolngu culture. Many of his photographs, “portraits of a people in a slice of time that would otherwise have been lost” (Press Kit, 2006), have made their way back to Ramingining and everyone there is related to someone in the photographs and everyone takes pride in them. “They are their continuity, their history” (Press Kit, 2006). The photo David presented to Rolf was said to be profoundly cinematic and with that single photo, the film Ten Canoes began to form.
The casting for Ten Canoes was highly unconventional. Those participating in the story consulting had clear claims to being in the film and had assumed they would be in it even if they were not fit for the parts already written. Birrinbirrin, for example, was overweight in a manner that no Yolngu would be seventy years ago. A role was created for him, a comedic part of a man always after honey. The ten men in Thomson’s canoes photo have been individually identified and many Ramingining related to at least one of them. Those with the strongest claims to heritage chose themselves to the play their ancestor and that was how those roles were decided. Characters in the film who had certain kinship relationship had to played by characters with that same kindship relationship. The aboriginal laws about Yirritja not marrying Yirritja’s and only marrying Dhua’s was upheld in the casting process and people were only cast who fit the role authentically.
                                        Cruesoe Kurddal and Richard Birrinbirrin on set
The production crew transformed Murwangi, and old cattle station at the edge of the swamp into a base habitable for filming. Tents were put up among the rusty sheds and the crew resigned to roughing it for many weeks. The camp was a vibrant, noisy environment. The cast brought their family and friends and children roamed the surrounding areas. Due to the close quarters, the Yolungu cast and the professional crew were quickly demystified by each other, both culturally and personally. This led a very trusting atmosphere on the set and a very enjoyable experience for all.
There are three versions of the film in existence: there's the version that has Yolngu
languages dialogue with English subtitles and English storytelling by David Gulpilil, there's the version that has both Yolngu languages dialogue and storytelling in Mandalpingu by David, with English subtitles and there's the Yolngu version, no subtitles, everything in the languages of the people whose film it is.
            “The film brought laughter, pride and joy to an entire community, even to those who'd had their doubts about the film being made at all. For days afterwards it was a dominant topic of conversation and set off many tangential conversations. Old ways were questioned, new ways were questioned. Culture was discussed, and history, and what it means to be Yolngu. And numbers of people who were in the film, and those who'd made contribution to it, were changed by it...they had a confidence of their place in the world not seen before.” (Press Kit, 2006)


Rolf de Heer on set

Rolf de Heer was born in Holland and migrated to Australia in 1959 and has become one of Australia’s leading filmmakers. Much of de Heer’s work can be described as predominantly Australian in nature. His feature film Dingo (1990) was a musical odyssey that traveled the outback in Western Australia to the Streets of Paris. The Tracker (2002) depicts a Native Australian man accused of murdering a white woman and three white men must find him with the help of an experienced Native Australian (played by David Guililpil). This film addresses aboriginals in a different manner then Ten Canoes but the two films are still related nonetheless.
            Director of Photography, Ian Jones has worked extensively in Australia and is highly regarded for his cinematography. He had worked with Rolf de Heer on The Tracker, Dingo, Bad Boy Bubbly and Alexandra’s Project, making Ten Canoes his fifth project with de Heer.
            David Gulpilil's, the narrator of Ten Canoes was born in Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory of Australia. He grew up in a tribal lifestyle, north east of Kakadu National Park where his ancestors have lived for thousands of years. In 1969 he was cast in the feature film Walkabout filmed on location in Northern Australia. He is one of Australia’s most accomplished dancers and musician, performing both nationally and internationally. He has appeared in feature films such as Mad Dog Moran, The Last Wave, Storm Boy, The Right Stuff, Dark Age, Dead Heart, Serenades, Until the End of the World, Rabbit Proof Fence, and in de Heer’s The Tracker.


         Ten Canoes is a sign of the progressing nature of Australian feature film. The Australian film industry is able to make a reasonable number of films each year but has found it difficult to compete in a marketplace dominated by the Hollywood product. Many talented Australian actors are lured into Hollywood and do not return to the domestic film industry. Ten Canoes is a film which can be described as truly Australian. With the authentic aboriginal cast, crew trained in Australia, the Northern Territory filming location and the aboriginal subject matter of the story, this is an example of a great film truly rooted in Australia. The critical and popular success of Ten Canoes informs us that the value of Australian film is rising and will continue to do so.
            Ten Canoes transcends typical genre labels. It could be described as action, adventure, comedy, romance, drama, history and war as well as various genres related to its naturalistic character. Few, if any, Australian films could be compared to Ten Canoes and that is what makes this film a feat and accomplishment for the Australian film industry.

"Ten Canoes." The Internet Movie Database. 27 Apr. 2007 http://imdb.com/title/tt0466399/maindetails

Ten Canoes Background Information” Offical Site of Ten Canoes Movie. 27 Apr. 2007

Ten Canoes: General Overview” Rotten Tomatoes. 27 Apr. 2007

Ten Canoes: Synopsis” Vertigo Productions. 27 Apr. 2007

(as well as the sources cited in the “Interviews” and “Reviews” sections)


By Rachel King, 2007.