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Palm Pictures presents
Ten Canoes (2006)

"Their destinies were like butterflies in the air."
- The Storyteller (David Gulpilil Ridjimiraril Dalaithngu)

Review By: Rich Rosell  
Published: September 05, 2008

Stars: Jamie Dayindi Gulpilil Dalaithngu, David Gulpilil Ridjimiraril Dalaithngu, Crusoe Kurddal
Other Stars: Richard Birrinbirrin, Peter Minygululu, Frances Djulibing, Sonia Djarrabalminym, Cassandra Malangarri Baker, Philip Gudthaykudthay, Michael Dawu, Peter Djigirr
Director: Rolf de Heer

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (mild language, brief violence, nudity)
Run Time: 01h:27m:46s
Release Date: September 25, 2007
UPC: 660200315825
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A+ AB+B+ A

DVD Review

Ten Canoes is set in the Aboriginal world of the Ramingining people of Australia's Arnhem Land, and director Rolf de Heer (The Tracker) carefully layers on a story-within-a-story-within-a-story to tell an ultimately familiar saga. But that's alright, because de Heer has filled this charming and tragic 2006 film with so much more than just actors telling a tale, and it's almost as if we the viewer are propelled backwards in time.

David Gulpilil Ridjimiraril Dalaithngu (Rabbit-Proof Fence) is the never-seen narrator known as The Storyteller, and it is through his voiceover that de Heer travels backwards along a cultural timeline of the Aborigines, mixing traditional drama, humor and danger with an almost documentary feel. The fact that The Storyteller actually makes a veiled Stars Wars joke early on is one of the only hints at anything close to a timeframe, because quickly the narrative heads back, back, back into the past. The whole back-in-time journey begins with a pair of brothers, one of whom (Jamie Dayindi Gulpilil Dalaithngu) secretly covets one of the younger brides of his sibling (Peter Minygululu). This leads to married brother telling the main story—about the problems of a brother (also played by Jamie Dayindi Gulpilil Dalaithngu) who covets the younger bride of his sibling (Crusoe Kurddal).

And that's where de Heer really steps off, as we're dropped into the long ago adventures of a small tribe, led by the silently stoic Ridjimiraril (Kurddal). Poor, sad-eyed Ridjimiraril is in for all manner of misunderstanding and tragedy when one of his wives suddenly goes missing after a mysterious stranger appears, which then propels him to try and lead his men to do what he thinks is the right thing to do. Only determining that is more difficult than it appears.

And to make matters worse, his younger brother has the wandering eye for one of his teenage brides. Toss in a bone-in-the-nose sorcerer, primitive haircuts, spear-tossing, canoe-making and even an unexpected fart joke, and de Heer blends it all together into an eventual life lesson that crosses the vast cultural and time boundaries with one giant leap.

With all due credit to the beautiful work of cinematographer Ian Jones (also of The Tracker) for the often stunning visuals—such as the magically lush up-river tracking shot that opens the film—the anchor of Ten Canoes is de Heer's casting. All of the indigenous Ramingining actors look and sound as if they fell out of an anthropologist's notebook, which is hardly a coincidence, as we learn on one of extras that de Heer used actual 1930s photos by a noted researcher as a basis for many of his shots. Crusoe Kurddal, with his deeply expressive features, is given the largest range of emotions in Ten Canoes, and by the time the third act hits he is given an opportunity to easily convey the kind of well-played dramatics that most Hollywood-types should wish they could do half as well.

This is a familiar and unusual film, often at the same time. de Heer's sometimes leisurely narrative is connected by the whimsy of The Storyteller, bouncing back and forth on a pair of long ago settings, eventually bringing us to where all stories must go. The end. And the almost comical final moments come on the heels of one of the film's most moving sequences, something that de Heer is able to dovetail in such a manner that it all seems quite natural.

Or as The Storyteller would say: "the proper" way.

Rating for Style: A+
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.78:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Ten Canoes comes from Palm in its original 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen aspect ratio. This is a striking transfer, with vivid colors and crisp edges throughout. The opening tracking shot along a river showcases the contrasting blues of the water and the sky—separated by all manner of greens and golds—and is a beaut. No measurable issues with edge enhancement or artifacting to be found.

Nice. Very nice.

Image Transfer Grade: B+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0English/Aborigineyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: Audio choices are available in either 2.0 stereo or 5.1 Dolby surround, presented in a combo of English and Aborigine. No issues at all with the stereo track, but the preferred 5.1 option is a much more cleverly subtle mix, utilizing the rear channels so that it allows cues such as buzzing flies and noisy birds to expand the soundstage in ways that give de Heer's film a wider feel.


Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 18 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
3 Other Trailer(s) featuring The Method, 1 Giant Leap, Mandela
1 Documentaries
4 Featurette(s)
Weblink/DVD-ROM Material
Packaging: clear plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: The supplements from Palm are first-rate, kicking off with a doc entitled The Balanda And The Bark Canoe (52m:00s). This fascinating and comprehensive look at the production—from documentary filmmakers Tania Nehme and Molly Reynolds—is more than just a simple making of featurette. It chronicles not just the logistics (in and of itself a challenge) but the importance of the delicate handling and representation of the cultural customs of the Aboriginal people. An intelligent, informative doc: what's not to like?

Dr. Donald Thomson was anthropologist who worked in the Arnhem region (where the film was shot) in the mid-1930s. A collection of his black-and-white photos of the locals called Thomson's Photographs (04m:22s) would, by itself, have been an engaging bonus. What tips the scales is the comparisons between Thomson's original images and the way director Rolf de Heer replicated many of those shots in Ten Canoes. The Aerial Map Of Arnhem Land (03m:08s) feature is an animated bit that begins with Earth, and then zooms in to identify regions where the film was shot, and also where Thomson did his work.

An Interview With Director Rolf de Heer (03m:55s) has the filmmaker standing in the brush chatting up the project's origins, while An Interview With Peter Djigirr (04m:07s), who is credited as co-director, is a bit more direct. Djigirr, who also acts in the film, doles out some blunt condemnations of his people's vanishing culture. Also included is the film's theatrical trailer, along a trio of previews for other Palm titles.

A DVD-ROM extra is mentioned on the backcover, but nowhere on the disc's menu. But it is there. It's a 19-page PDF called The Ten Canoes Study Guide, and it's an educational adjunct, chock full of photos and questions to review about the film and the people.

The disc is cut into 18 chapters, with not-really-an-option-unless-you-speak-Aborigine English subs.

Extras Grade: A


Final Comments

Rolf de Heer's story-within-a-story-within-a-story set in the world of the Aborigines is one of those rare films that can mesh humor, tragedy and education, and takes viewers into a world few have ever or will ever experience.

Ten Canoes is a genuine treat, and if I could go back in time I would have added it to my 2007 Best-Of list. So there.

Highly recommended.


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