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2006 saw the release of several films with actors speaking endangered languages - Mel Gibson's Apocalypto (Mayan) and Rolf de Heer's film Ten Canoes, set in Arnhem Land, and with actors speaking mostly in Ganalbingu (and see Anggarrgoon on it).

Leaving aside the pleasure of hearing actors speak in Indigenous Australian languages, I liked Ten Canoes - it was funny, it gave an idea of the good and the bad about small societies - you're looked after, but you have reciprocal responsibility, and NO privacy - everyone knows what you're thinking. The filming was beautiful - both the recreation of early photos, and the shots of the light on the water and the tangled trees in the swamp. And the authors worked hard to "make a film that would not only satisfy local tastes and requirements but would also satisfy Western audiences used to Western storytelling conventions." [1]

Ten Canoes won awards, it had some box-office success, and it has resulted in several spin-off projects which benefit the Ramingining community e.g. recording traditional songs, publishing Donald Thomson's photographs of Arnhem Land in 1937, training older teenagers (with help from Save the Children and Create Australia) in film-making.

Good eh? But oddly, some people have found it offensive that the Australian Catholic Film Office and the Australian Film Institute would vote Ten Canoes Best Film of the year.

For example, "Paddling a new canoe" by Paul Gray in the Herald Sun (8/1/07) criticises these decisions. Why? Well it seems to be the language. He prefers penguins talking English and acting in un-penguin-like ways (Happy Feet) to Yolngu talking Yolngu languages and acting in Yolngu ways.

Gray starts by asserting that "Ten Canoes is filmed entirely in an Aboriginal language" - in fact there is an over-arching narration in English by David Gulpilil, and there are English sub-titles. He goes on:

"Ten Canoes seems to be a case of the unsociable rushing to laud the unwatchable.
High-minded motives are attributed to the decisions to make Ten Canoes the film of the year.
Father Leonard's crowd feels the film provides "a window into the social and spiritual heritage of Australia that can only be a useful instrument for reconciliation".
Nice thought. But how useful an instrument is it, if it is not in the national language? [...]
Please be clear, I am not bagging films on Aboriginal themes. They're a great idea, but they need to be accessible to a general audience and truthful.
A great example is the film of several years ago, Who Killed Malcolm Smith?, by Aboriginal filmmaker Richard Frankland. It related the tragic life story of an Aboriginal prisoner who died in jail. [...] Frankland's film was in English, so white guys like me could understand it.
There's an idea for aspiring filmmakers.
The sadness of Ten Canoes is not its lament for a lost civilisation.
It's the fact that non-Aborigines in the film world aren't pushing indigenous artists to come up with stories everyone will want to see."

Paul Gray is a columnist for one of the most widely read Murdoch tabloids in Australia, and writes for various Catholic media outlets. He implies that he's speaking for average people who go to the movies, and for Indigenous people who are misled by the film-making elite. So lots of people will read his article and, if they don't think too hard about it, will agree with his opinion that it's a bad idea to make films in less widely spoken languages, and it's a bad idea to tell stories whose content and structure differs from standard English stories, and it's a very bad idea to give films like that "Best film" awards.

Good idea (1): making films in less widely spoken languages. So, can't white guys read subtitles? Australia's literacy rate is not as bad as that. What does Gray make of the commercial success of Mel Gibson's Passion of Christ (Aramaic and Latin), and the fact that his Apocalypto has smashed box-office records for foreign language films in the UK? And what about anime? Subtitled Japanese anime films are inspiring kids all over Australia to learn Japanese. (And in any case, English speakers should be encouraging films in less widely spoken languages - English isn't going to be a world language forever. A farsighted Paul Gray would say to his readers, "Und I'm learning Chinese" says Wernher von Braun.)

Good idea (2): unfamiliar stories and unfamiliar ways of telling stories. Again, look at anime - unfamiliarity is part of the charm. Ten Canoes is not the sadly familiar tragic view of broken people sniffing petrol, drinking, thieving. Nor is it an elegaic romantic view of the past. It's something new for films about Aborigines - exploring the tensions, tragic and comic, in small societies. And as for the unfamiliarity of its slow-moving pace and time switches - look at Kurosawa's Rashomon. How many films have adopted its way of switching views to tell a story? An alien device at the time of its release in 1950.

Good idea (3): awarding "Best film" to Ten Canoes rather than Happy Feet. Box office success isn't the sole criterion for 'Best film'. It's an assertion that the film will have a life beyond the year. The box office success of 1950 was not Rashomon but Disney's Cinderella - familiar plot, story-telling style, and cute mice talking English. There's clearly a lasting appeal to animals acting like humans and talking English, and maybe Happy Feet will last as long as Disney's Cinderella. But Animal Farm they are not. They're watched for pleasure, not for ideas. Ten Canoes, like Rashomon, can be watched for ideas and pleasure. That's why it deserves "Best film".

[1] Rights and rites Des Partridge,  
June 29, 2006 The Courier Mail


I don't think Paul Gray actually saw ten canoes at all:
"If this is not enough to have most of us rushing for a different movie to watch, Father Leonard also tells us the film is also partly in black and white." ...tells us? Wouldn't Gray be able to see for himself?

And this notion that success at the box office translates as 'better' is simply misguided. One might equally claim that 'So you think you can dance' is a better show than, say, 'The Sopranos' just becuase it rates better.
I haven't seen Happy Feet so I can't comment on how good it is, but it seems the only message Gray could extract from it was "don't kill fish". How utterly profound and complex. But then: "That message should carry enough moral worth for anyone". There you go, you can satisfy your thirst for moral integrity in under 90 minutes at Hoyts.

It would be a bit poor to spend a whole article bagging a film you hadn't seen - but I agree that the article does give rise to that suspicion...

Hey, I've been *promoting* a film I haven't seen! Still can't get hold of it here in the Southern US. I'm waiting for the DVD release at the end of January.

If only 'Ten Canoes' had made the Oscar list you might have had more chance...

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