An indigenous snooze-fest

Ten Canoes, a filmed re-telling of an Australian Aboriginal folktale, takes a novel approach to exposing Westerners to the indigenous inhabitants of Australia.

Ten Canoes, a filmed re-telling of an Australian Aboriginal folktale, takes a novel approach to exposing Westerners to the indigenous inhabitants of Australia. Critics and fans in the film’s native country and around the world have eaten Ten Canoes up, praising the “rich humanity, dynamic storytelling and celebration of culture” that are “woven” into the 90-minute-long fable. The truth is, while skill is shown in the camera work and the settings are naturally evocative and powerful, the overall ham-handedness robs what might have been at least an interesting story with any kind of punch.

Ten Canoes‘ rudimentary narrative follows a pair of Aborigine brothers, living traditional lifestyles in Northern Australia. The younger has developed a fancy for his elder brother’s youngest wife, and, being wise, the elder decides to tell his brother an ancient tale about two brothers in the very same situation. After this point, the film cuts back and forth between the present-day telling and the past happenings of the tale. The story moseys along in no great hurry, as the ancients deal with a mysterious stranger and his powerful, malevolent magic, among other things. The plot stays simple, and is acted quite well by an Aborigine cast, who do inject some wry humor into the slow proceedings. By the end, the ancient-times protagonist has died, and the modern-day younger brother has learned an important lesson about patience, namely the patience to listen to a long-winded story.

The big hoopla about this film stems from the fact that the story is a traditional one, and the actors are indigenous. That’s certainly true, but the way their characters are handled makes little effort to step outside of the usual documentary picture-postcard style. For example, all we are told by the narrator about the main character in the ancient tale is that he is a “proud warrior,” which is just about the oldest line in the book when it comes to any kind of tribal culture.

The main character’s face certainly looks proud and majestically weathered, though for a film that is supposed to be different in its portrayal of Aborigines, the story should explore his personality to a further degree. The same goes for the rest of the sizeable cast of characters. While they have great potential to be interesting, little of it is realized by the time the film ends.

Esoteric considerations aside, the biggest shortcoming of the Ten Canoes is that it’s boring. If the narrator didn’t talk at a speed of about three words per minute, the whole thing would last about 15 minutes. Apparently, slowing it down and throwing in some shots of canoes being built is all you have to do to have critics pop giant boners for your unsubstantial film. Script it in the original Mandhalpuyngu language with subtitles and long-winded narration, and you’re set to win more awards than you know what to do with.

Granted, the actors and undeniable natural beauty, along with some witty banter, add a bit of humanity and life to the story, but that can’t save the film from its corny, boring self. The traditional story just doesn’t translate well to film. Unless you’re possessed with a burning fascination for Aboriginal culture, you might want to pass on Ten Canoes.