Ten Canoes (2006) is not the masterpiece it is acclaiming to be. For all the rave reviews, including by the likes of Nick Prescott and David Stratton, it really is an ordinary film.
How could so many critics and film festivalgoers be so wrong? In my view, it has more to do with not wanting to say anything bad about the film. Sure, it is a film about indigenous Australians in an unspoiled part of the wilderness. That makes it relatively unique, but there is nothing about the aesthetics that you can call ground-breaking.
First, the film opens rather conventionally by panning over the wilderness to the sound of a voice-over, and it uses colour and monochrome to distinguish between flashbacks and real time. The narrative structure, despite its attempt to adopt a traditional indigenous narrative style, ends up being a rather conventional tale about being patient and the importance of kinship. Those aside, the only “groundbreaking” part is the setting.
Now, some critics and lovers of the film will be inclined to argue that I'm attempting to judge it by unsuitable criteria or that I'm prejudiced. Well, first and foremost, we should recognise that art, no matter what the culture, will always exist within a context. Given that the film is being distributed to the public at large, I think it is safe to say that we are meant to draw comparisons with the usual stuff we watch in the dark.
Secondly, I would argue that it is the film criticism community at large that are being prejudiced. As noted by Ross Williams in Australian Psychologist (vol. 35, 2), remorse for the impact of white settlement on Aboriginal society has been hidden among the dark recesses of the Australian psyche since the federation. The classic symptom of this is the paternalistic approach we often see in white Australia's response to indigenous culture, and you can see it in the language that critics have used to descrive the film which emphasize “wonderful” and “lovely” without any solid analysis.
With that in mind, I have tried to assess the film on the grounds that I am not biased on. Based on what I do know about indigenous culture, I think I can safely say that the film lacks an indigenous aesthetic that would complement the content. Across most cultures, one often sees a trend and particular kind of aesthetic that makes that culture unique. One can often say a film is of a French, Japanese, American, British or even Australian aesthetic, based on what members of these cultures find attractive to look at.
In a way, we can see that the Hollywood “style,” reflects a certain way of looking at the world. You often find your happy capitalists, an emphasis on stories about individuals rather than groups, the presence of expensive goods and non-ambiguous cinematography. Scenes rarely linger because there is a fear of being boring.
Given the way that economic and cultural factors drive such an aesthetic, one would expect a very contrary kind of cinema to emerge from indigenous Australia. One would expect a cinema that emphasized the individual within the land and one without fixed settings (since the traditional culture did not favour the idea of remaining in a single location but rather the free movement of people within large territories).
While the story does limits itself to the experiences of one camp, the aesthetics of Ten Canoes sets down concrete sets with improvized architecture that provide a sense of permanence in locations. It is fair enough that the relationship with the land is developed in scenes where the characters simply draw on it for materials and food, but this only impacts on the narrative and not the aesthetic.
It is interesting to compare the film with with Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927) and M (1931). In these two films, by placing emphasis on the compounding ways that the community work together and affect one another, we come to appreciate the complexity of society as he envisions it, and in avoiding the use of a central protagonist we are brought to focus on the society as a whole. It shows that Lang was probably inspired by Marx and his ideas about the class struggle.
Ten Canoes also tends to explore the structure of the community. In particular we get to explore the relationships between men and women in the society. In stark contrast with Lang's work, the film shows us much simpler relationships. I guess that just goes to show how urbanity can influence collective behaviour.
It is unfortunate that such an interesting concept relied so heavily on traditional film-making aesthetics which add little to the experience of Indigenous Australia. It does not connect us with the characters on any level deeper than objectivity, and in turn, perpetuates the experience of White Australia as outside observers of Indigenous culture.
As Germaine Greer has suggested, one of the biggest obstacles for Australian culture has been to accept the past and resolve the gap between white and black. Only then can Australian's have a solid sense of national identity.
If Ten Canoes had taken us deep into the indigenous psych, then it might have been a much more significant film for Australian audiences.