Sunday, 9 November 2014


“Man is born free, but everywhere he is in chains.” - Jean Jacques Rousseau, “The Social Contract”

Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) was one of the most influential thinkers during the Enlightenment in eighteenth century Europe. He was a great intellectual and his work includes philosophical discourses, political treatises and novels. “The Discourse on the Origin of Inequality” was his second philosophical work and it claims that human beings are basically good by nature, but were corrupted by the complex historical events that resulted in the present day civil society. He proposed in this work the concept of the “noble savage”, the primitive human being who lives in communion with nature and is basically good and noble. Rousseau’s praise of nature is a theme that continues throughout his later works as well.

“The Fatal Impact: The Invasion of the South Pacific, 1767-1840” by Alan Moorehead (1987) is a book that takes Rousseau’s premise and applies it to the discovery of Australia and the South Pacific exemplifying the concept of the “noble savage” who was degraded, corrupted, exploited and culturally alienated by the invading Europeans. It is a must to read for anyone who wishes to understand the development of “young” nations like Australia and New Zealand. Moorehead objectively discusses the social and political situation in 18th century Europe and the triggers that led to the settling of the South Pacific. The title of the book describes accurately the decimation of whole populations and the destruction that ensued after the European invasion. The decadence of the “Noble Savage” is chronicled and the “civilised” culture of the Europeans is held up to considerable scrutiny and immense and justified criticism.

This may be a very long introduction to talk about the film for Movie Monday today, but it needs to be said as the film is one, which for the first time attempts to accurately portray Australian Aboriginal culture and life before the arrival of the Europeans. The film is Rolf de Heer’s “Ten Canoes” (2006). When watching the film on DVD I chose to watch the whole of it in the Aboriginal soundtrack version with English subtitles. This contributed greatly to the illusion of times long past, and the gentle, crooning, melodic language of the Northern Australian Aboriginal tribes that was used contributed more to the magic of the story.

Aboriginal culture thrives on stories and storytelling, so it is no surprise that this film is constructed in the way that it is. It is about a storyteller telling a story, about his ancestors, who in turn are telling a story, which is about their ancestors. It is a box, containing a box containing another box, or is like a series of nested Matryoshka Russian dolls. The film was shot on location in very remote areas of the Northern Territory of Australia and the actors are, obviously, all Aborigines. The landscape is absolutely breathtaking and is the other major player in the film. The cinematography incorporates the landscape into the story and makes of it a living thing, something that actively participates in the unwinding of the stories. The stories themselves are likened in the film to young trees that blossom, and grow, and branch and the metaphor is very apt.

There are two stories depicted, both taking place in two distant periods in the past before the arrival of whites. The first story is filmed in black-and-white, and concerns a young man called Dayindi who takes part in his first hunt for goose eggs in the Arafura swamp, in central Arnhem Land. He learns how to build a bark canoe and his older brother tells him a story that has immediate relevance to his own life. This older man, Minygululu knows that Dayinidi fancies his young and pretty third wife, so the story he tells is about the old laws, and a young man who had no wife. This second story that Minygululu relates is set in a much older time, and filmed in colour, It concerns Yeeralparil, who fancies the third wife of the warrior Ridjimiraril, mirroring the first story. The two stories weave in and out of each other and in the process we gain insight into a culture that is foreign to us, but at the same time imbued with great nobility. The alternation of the black and white with the colour footage not only separates the two stories but is also a tribute to the early photographers of the Aborigines, who documented the writings of the anthropologists.

There is humour in the film, as well as drama. We witness the interaction of the tribe members with each other as well as with members of other tribes. We experience their joys and sorrows and become involved in their rituals, beliefs and laws. There is an earthy, genuine quality about the people we observe and all in all this is a beautiful film and displays a maturing of Australian film-making involving the Aborigines in a way that was begun by the impressive collaboration between de Heer and Gulpilil in a previous film “The Tracker” (2002).

If you can get your hands on this film, watch it! It is a magnificent attempt at documenting a culture that is under the threat of extinction. Watching this film brought to my mind the Aboriginal legends that I have read and the wonderful art of the Aboriginal people. It brought to mind Rousseau’s ideal “Noble Savage” and also Moorehead’s “Fatal Impact”. It is a film that makes one happy and sad at the same time, and I can only imagine the pain that a native Australian would feel when watching this film. However, there must also be pride and nostalgia mixed with those painful emotions in the heart of the Aborigine. “Ten Canoes” is a great way of glimpsing an alien culture, yet one which is nevertheless deeply human, and hence engaging. 

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