Monday, 21 July 2008

Nowalingu, 2nd wife of Ridgimaril - a warrior and ancestor of Minygululu, who heads the tribe in the first story - is the pin that forms the centre of this interesting film.

Rolf de Heer's DVD pack includes a disc with material not included in the big screen edition, so it's worthwhile buying.

I saw one other de Heer film and remember seeing his Dr Plonk's 'machine' at the National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra when I visited the capital in January.

With Ten Canoes, de Heer has made a narrative useful for national debates. It uses a mise en abime - a story within a story - and despite the fact that I chose 'All aboriginal language with English subtitles' at the start, it is entertaining and easy enough to follow.

The wallpaper on the selection is (like my head image) Nowalingu. Her story begins with a dilemma faced by the ancestor headman (Minygululu). His younger brother Daynidi is keen on one of Minygululu's wives.

Minygululu tells Dayindi a story over several days while the men of the tribe hunt magpie geese. "They cut the barks off the trees and they talk about women," goes the narrative. "I hear you're keen on my wife," says Minygululu.

He helps Dayindi - a novice - peel the tree bark away from the trunk. He decides to tell Dayindi a story to "help him to live the proper way".

The narrator - a chuckling man with a slow voice - suggests the audience (us) may also benefit from hearing the story, which begins at "a time when the ancestors were just little fish in their waterholes".

This metaphor ties in with the narrator's opening remarks, when he tells how he came to exist, in this land of the Great Water Goanna, Yurlungurr. The 'story-within-a-story' takes place in a scrubby bush.

The low trees stretch out into plains. These are the plains, the narrator says, where Yurlungurr named everything.

Ridgimaril is "a proud warrior" who lives "under the same law as now". The young men live in the young men's camp and the women go digging for swamp nuts when Ridgimaril decides - he's had enough of his wives' arguing - to go hunting.

Banalandju calls the women together when her husband "goes bush". But all is not perfect. When Nowalingu, Ridgimaril's 2nd wife, goes missing, the men prepare for war.

Amid this narrative, we get a lesson in how to build a bark canoe. After peeling it off, they carry it to the water and soak it. The bark slabs are then placed over a fire to make them soft.

They then cool the bark to make it easy to bend. The slab is pincered in the fork of a two-trunked scrubby tree and the ends are sewn together to make the prow and stern.

The film's three 'phases' are efficiently signalled by changes in colour saturation - the present (colour), the time of the ancestors hunting geese (black and white), and the time of the even more ancient ancestors (colour).

This strategy blends into the mellow, dry, flat-toned voice of the narrator.

"I think she ran away," says one of the men. Others agree but Ridgimaril isn't convinced. "She didn't run away," he says. And although life without Nowalingu "became normal", Ridgimaril's "proper soul" seemd to have been taken away.

Yeeralparil cannot go to fight because, as Ridgimaril' brother, he must take his wives if he dies. The danger here, of course, is that Yeeralparil might prefer this outcome: he's keen on Munanjarra, Ridgimaril's 3rd wife.

"You young people like that," says Minygululu as he tells Dayindi about the war party. He tells how the ancestors gathered sticks to make spears, tipped with stones dressed by Birrinbirrin.

This white-haired, fat man is interesting. Not only does he get short of breath, but he also likes honey too much. The women shoo him off when he starts requesting his favourite treat.

When the men walk off with their white-painted bodies and with bundles of sticks slung over their shoulders, the women keen. But they come back. The uncle who told them he had seen Nowalingu in a neighbouring camp had made a mistake.

Then Birrinbirrin hears from some boys sitting in a tree that the 'stranger' had returned. The man is speared by Ridgimaril and things get nasty when the dead man's tribe accuses Birrinbirrin of his murder.

"I did it," says Ridgimaril. So a 'payback' is planned.

Above: Dayindi and Minygululu strip bark.

Above: Ridgimaril.

Above: Dayindi listens to Minygululu.

Above: The single men's camp.

Above: Yeeralparil is "off to see his girl".

Above: Birrinbirrin.

Above: The sorceror.

Above: Ridgimaril beckons the stranger to approach.

Above: The sorceror scouts the camp looking for remnants that might have been left by the stranger.

Above: Punting on the swamp - Dayindi and Minygululu.

Above: Ridgimaril's 1st wife (Banalandju) and 2nd wife (Nowalingu).

Above: While Ridgimaril goes hunting Banalandju assembles the women to go digging for swamp nuts.

Above: Hunting magpie geese.

Above: The fatal event - Nowalingu by a water hole.

Above: The men, returned from the camp of the tribe's neighbours, admit that Nowalingu was not there.

Above: Minygululu tells the story as the men sit on their platforms above the swamp where they are hunting magpie geese.

Above: The stranger's tribe, having found the body of the man speared by Ridgimaril, call them to a 'payback'.

Above: The payback is planned.

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