15 CERT. 90 MINS
What would it have been like to be an aboriginal Australian living 1,000 years ago in the crocodile infested swamps of northern Australia? That is the question posed by Ten Canoes, a Rolf de Heer film that has been the delight of the international festivals for over a year and is now filially reaching our shores on a limited release. The answer, apparently, is "not that bad". And that is interesting enough. But then there are the inevitable follow-up questions, never asked but implicit within every frame: is life so different now? If so, is it better or worse? Perhaps I am being reductive. Ten Canoes is not an anthropological documentary — it is a work of art. Ian Jones's wide-angle lense takes us swooping over vast forests and swamplands, dense with the sounds of life, for a 10-minute meditation before we meet any people at all. Then comes the voice of the aboriginal actor David GulpiliI: "I am going to tell you a story. It's not your story, it's my story —but you want a proper story, huh? Then I must tell you something of my people and my land." He is the storyteller, the voice from the present. He then introduces us to "the time of his ancestors", in which is taking place a hunting outing of 10 ancestors on 10 canoes. The scenes from this time are filmed in bleached black and white, reminiscent of the 1930s photographs of the anthropologist David Thomas on which they are based. But instead of returning to the present from the 10 canoes and "the time of my ancestors" we go even further back. During the hunting trip Old Minygululu (played by aboriginal first-time actor Peter, er, Minygululu) is aware that his young brother Dayendi (played by David Gulpilit's son Jamie Dayendi Gulpilil — you get the idea) has taken a fancy to his third wife. So as this is his first egg-hunting outing (Whoa! Metaphor ahoy!), Minygululu tells him an ancient story which transports us to the third, mythical, ancient thneframe, rich in colour and symbols. This is the real plot, but the framing devices, and the fact that many of the same actors play parts in both the different time frames that we move between, give the effect of an unchanging world, stretching out back to the beginnings of time. Young warrior Ridjimiraril lives in a similar swampland community with his three wives and younger brother (who fancies his youngest wife). The story follows his simple, slow life, replete with lost wives, strangers and sorcerers, a little fighting, and death. The surprising thing is how fun it all is. On the evidence of other depictions of early societies on film — The Story of a Weeping Camel. Apocalypto — I would choose aboriginal Australia any day. It is not just the usual scatological jokes (all these films have those). this story is imbued with a certain wistful lightness. You get the impression that these people have a timeless perspective that consigns the events of life and death to a shrug of the shoulder and a distant laugh. As the narrator explains, they all come from their own water holes in the swamp, and when they die they go back to them, "waiting there like little fishes to be born again". This is where the film is most successful. In the beginning the whole thing seems preposterously naive — either some kind of spoof or just a very boring children's story. But gradually you get used to the pace, and ensnared in the "big kind of tree" that it grows into. I kept wondering what I am sure is a politically incorrect question: was the population of this unbelievably basic culture actually stupider than us? Although they reveal the same lusts and fears they show no evidence of a desire to go forward, or build anything up, or to change Or contribute to their universe. The answer, of course, is that they had a different kind of wisdom, consisting of humility and peace with their surroundings, that undoubtedly we have less of today. You choose one, you lose the other monk or magnate, you can't be both. Seeing as you are being treated to the mystical musings of F Sayers, permit me to ponder one moral conundrum that is central to this story. Our main hero, Ridjirniraril, while attempting to kill a man he believes to have stolen his wife, accidentally spears a complete stranger from a neighbouring tribe; according the "the law", there must be "payback" for this bloodspill, in this case consisting of the neighbouring tribe lining up and throwing spears at both him and his brother from a distance until one of them is hit. It is pot luck whether either of them dies or not. Such a law of "payback" seems decidedly unChristian is its absence of the possibility of forgiveness. We've gone beyond that. And yet the unquestioning sense that the universal law requires badness to be in some way paid for goes to the heart of the Blood Atonement Doctrine by which an innocent Christ died to pay for the sins of mankind. The Christian God seems to abide by the same rules as the Australian aboriginals. Am I missing a point, or have we not progressed as much as we might think?