Ten Canoes – de Heer. Djiggir – 2006 Australia

Ten Canoes – de Heer. Djiggir – 2006 Australia

adrin neatrour writes:
Ten Canoes is an idyll – beautifully shot respectful treatment of the Australian aboriginal world. But ultimately it made me think of Walt Disney’s ‘Bambi’. Ten Canoes is set in a primeval forest world where man and nature are so closely intertwined that the natural and social systems vibrate sympathetically in close harmony. But it doesn’t have a ‘Bambi’ movement.
Ten Canoes – de Heer. Djiggir – 2006 Australia – Crusoe Kurddal; Jamie Gulpilil
Star and Shadow – 8-07-07 Ticket price £4-00

No ‘Bambi’ moment here…

Ten Canoes is an idyll – beautifully shot  respectful treatment of the Australian aboriginal world.   But ultimately it made me think of Walt Disney’s ‘Bambi’.  Ten Canoes is set in a primeval forest world where man and nature are so closely intertwined that the natural and social systems vibrate sympathetically in close harmony.   But it doesn’t have a ‘Bambi’ movement.

Where ten canoes ceases to resemble ‘Bambi‘ is that it lacks in the whole of its course a real moment that connects this virtual idyll to the actual encompassing world that threatens it with a specific set of other desires.  ‘Bambi’ which is also set in an idyll – a drawn animated world comprising a natural forest setting – has as its central feature groups of heavily anthropomorphised animals and insects whose function is to legitimise the Disney values of  family and America.  The great set piece in ‘Bambi’ is the sequence portraying the destruction of the environment by a natural force – fire – which destroys both habitat and individual animals who fail to escape in time.  But before this disaster ‘Bambi’ has one other real moment: a moment that sabotages the idyll;  a moment that briefly but completely undermines the whole Disney sugared world of American family values.

Hearing a sequence of loud short retorts (gunshots) Bambi’s mother calls him to her in alarm.  Nestling close together mother and son watch as in the distance a figure carrying a gun emerges out of the trees into a clearing. This distant image is all we see of the hunter. Bambi asks his mom, what creatures are these? And Mom answers ‘Man’.  Man enters the forest by right to hunt and kill without discrimination.  Man is the terrible reality invading and subjecting the forest to his will. Mom will eventually fall before the hunter’s gun but it is in that short moment  when the man appears – the white man –  from out of the trees that the Disney film rents the veil of illusion that covers the myth of  the expressed primal forest kingdom.  The idyll is revealed as a sham state: a escapist fantasy nurtured by idealists,  animation artists, dreamers and children.   After the ‘Bambi’ moment (even given the ‘off screen’ death of  mom shot by the men) the film returns straight back into the recreation of the self contained vacuum packed ideal forest world.

We know whatever the cartoon creators may represent to us that today the forests are not the kingdoms of old.  The contemporary forest is a satrap state, a political dependency that endures only at the willing connivance of man.  Its survival rests on the changing needs and desires of the state.  Because ‘Bambi’ allows itself a real creative moment where an actual state of affairs is revealed, we know that the last shot of Bambi as he takes his father’s place as a majestically pointed stag represents a perilous condition.  Man will want his horns and pursue hunt and run him down in order to kill him and acquire the antlers as their trophy by right. 

To a degree, ‘Bambi’ is informed by its own content that it is propagating a childish illusion.  There is no such ‘moment’ in Ten Canoes. Ten Canoes is a distillation that encases the viewer within a perfectly sealed hermetic image of the aboriginal world.  There is no referent in the movie to the encompassing political world that presses in on the originary domain. Today when we are sensitised to and aware of  the atrocities predations and betrayals that have been perpetrated on the aboriginal peoples of Australia in an attempt by the whites to deny and destroy them, this lack of external referents turned Ten Canoes into vacuous experience, something irrelevant to both aboriginals and the white world.  The unwillingness of Ten canoes to allude to the forces controlling the Australian forest and desert, make the film read like a children’s illustrated book,  a Disney cartoon –  a film about a remote far off people not the actual aboriginal men and women who have to come to terms within the compass of contemporary Australia.       

The directors of Ten Canoes, de Heer and Djiggir might contest that so deeply have the aboriginal people and their culture been derided and unvalued, regarded as something grotesquely primitive and worthless,  that their film had as its overriding  purpose the affirmation of these people, their society and their culture.  To restate the worth and dignity of the autochthonous culture in order to restore respect and balance after 150 years of genocide attrition and cultural defamation.  And it’s true that in its representation of the physicality of the people and their beliefs, in the acting, in its cinematography and in its story telling form, Ten Canoes treats the indigenous people with respect and observes their lives as interactions with both endogamous social forces and the natural environment. Ten Canoes expresses the sentiment that these are people who live their lives in tune with each other and the environment.  They have the wisdom to know that in this land this is the only way.   In the act of filming de Heer and Djiggir  using mainly wide and medium shots with long steadicam tracks and takes find a style that is in sympathy with the way they want to represent their subjects.  The music in the film the didgeridoo rattles and percussion is an exquisite extension of the natural sounds everywhere about, in the trees and swamps.  The structure of Ten Canoes that shifts in time between the story teller and the story he is telling, creates a simulacrum of aboriginal life as locked into a primordial reality where everything happens in one big reoccurring time. de Heer and Djiggir do justice in simulating this world as a place to be valued but at a cost.  The cost is that the production starts to look false; to resemble a cartoon film whose concern is with appearances, and  to reduce judgement to values that can be ascribed to outer forms,  rather than actual inner situations and states of affairs. 

One of Disney’s big hits of the ‘50s was a film called The Living Dessert.  In the Living Desert the lives of desert creatures were subjected to anthropomorphic interpretation so that their behaviour was simply reduced to the level of the cartoon  creatures.   The film was heavily loaded by the presence of an avuncular voice over.  A voice – never seen and existing on a different track and plane within the movie – which purported to understand and explain everything we saw.  Real elements in the natural history of the  animals were by and large omitted in favour of a sort of make believe recreation of their lives as creatures of Disney’s polico-semantic environment complete with humanised motivation ( “…here’s a cute little fellah {speaking of a racoon) what’s on his mind….?) The Living Desert showed that in the animal kingdom contrived shot and edited footage can be easily manipulated into signifiers of Disney values.  Although  the values are different  the same falsifying process seems to be at work in Ten Canoes.  Using a heavy interpretative voice over technique, throughout the film the aboriginal culture is reduced to an exemplifier of certain moral values.  The story teller appropriates all of the interpretative space in the film and speaks for everyone  It is done perhaps with good intentions but its effect is to substitute judgements for other expressive possibilities. .

Ten Canoes presents an autochthonous originary situation that is a hermetically sealed world in which the indigenous people are part of a primal kingdom.  This Aboriginal world,  some of whose inhabitants are played by actors, is represented as a model idealised world in which everything is more or less perfect.  The men are strong hunters, in the young there is respect for the elders and the traditions, the spiritual element of life is recognised and given due weight, the women are wives and behave as women should behave they do not transgress into the world of men, and ( as in the jungle book) the tribe behave and respect the law.  Everyone is satisfied with their place in the order of the cosmos. The film as an interpretive narrative is didactic, pointing up the necessary relationship between the world as a paradise and the social wisdom necessary to sustain it.  Unfortunately this model is a lie.  The behaviour of the people and the world sustained by this behaviour in Ten Canoes is a contrivance.  It is a mythologised state that owes everything to Walt Disney and the world of children’s illustrated bibles and nothing to life itself.  In an important sense Ten Canoes is  contrived and well intentioned lie that peddles a bowdlerised world without conflict, where wives all behave like women are supposed to, where the young do as their elders say and where there is no conflict.  It is of course a world without the encompassing discomfort of white civilisation.  It is the world of the lie just as Disney is the world of the lie.

Ten Canoes says little about the experienced conditions of life of the Aborigines.  It is happy to peddle a cleaned up sort of politically environmentally acceptable aboriginal face for white inspection.  As such it leaves us out of touch with the Aboriginal condition today, it leaves us out of touch with a people having to come to terms with their own experiences of degradation devaluation and near extermination. 
Perhaps these films makers and their collaborators have a bolder more difficult film within them but this is a film that is static and goes nowhere.  There is a line in the film when one of the men jokes about a stranger who has been found in their territory. This stranger covers his loins with a clothe. Why does he do this the men ask? Perhaps he has a small cock: “ – never trust a man with a small cock…” jokes one of the men.  This is a film that goes off half cock.
adrin neatrour   
adrinuk@yahoo.co.uk

Author: Adrin Neatrour

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