I was introduced to the films of director Rolf de Heer by a friend who was in shock and awe after seeing De Heer’s Alexandra’s Project (2005), a mean-spirited inconsistently intense suburban thriller. Although Alexandra’s Project screams for a strong reaction from its viewers, I felt pretty ambivalent to it as a whole. De Heer’s Ten Canoes (2007), a complexly simple film, and the first feature made in the Indigenous Australian language called Ganalbingu, is so different than Alexandra’s Project it is hard to imagine the two films coming from the same director. The death of the author, indeed! (Admittedly, I hear that De Heer's other films are much more similar to Ten Canoes than to Alexandra's Project).
With a striking visual beauty and narratologic complexity, seemingly confined within the film’s simple story, Ten Canoes tells the story of an indigenous man who falls in love with one his brother’s older wives. The story of this man is being told generations later to a man named Dayindi, who is having similar problems to those of his ancestors. Moreover, there is an English narrator who is narrating the film to the audience. This tri-level narration works to deepen the film’s discourse on oral histories and storytelling. Moreover, the beautiful photography and very dry comic wit gives Ten Canoes extra resonance and makes it that much more mystifying.
by James Hansen