Sunday, 27 January 2008

Film: Ten Canoes

Lowdown: A glimpse into aboriginal culture.
The number of films talking about love triangles probably exceeds the number of stars in a small galaxy, but Ten Canoes is not your ordinary love triangle story. Before watching it I knew that it's an Australian film dealing with aboriginals and shot in aboriginal lands with real aboriginals as its actors, but I didn't know just how aboriginal the film was.
It starts by telling us of a group of aboriginal warriors going to hunt geese on a swamp. As far as we can tell the story may have taken place today, but it also could have taken place ten thousand years ago for all we know: the warriors carry spears with them, they build their own canoes by removing bark off trees and processing them, and then they ride the canoes in swamps looking for geese and their eggs. While doing all those things, one warrior asks his older brother why he is wifeless while the older brother has three wives; he covets the younger one of the three. The older brother answers by telling him a story which, although told as a flashback, takes the film's lead and is actually what most of the film is about. The story is about a couple of brothers in a similar situation, and what takes place in their tribe as the situation folds along. It's a story of jealousy, war, and finding one's place in the world. The story is told slowly, in aboriginal style, and it would probably qualify as quite boring by normal standards; it's the way things are told that makes it an interesting experience.
The main event of Ten Canoes is the glimpse it provides into the aboriginal world. The plot does not really matter much; what matters is the exposure we get to the way aboriginal culture ticks, the way they think and the way they behave, all of which are significantly different to anything "us" people of the Western culture are used to. As such, the film is invaluable.
That said, I could not help think how far back that culture is. I don't mean no disrespect to aboriginal people; they have been severely wronged throughout the colonization of Australia and they are being criminally wronged still. However, let's call things the way they are: The aboriginals in Ten Canoes are living in the Stone Age, fair and square. If you want to glorify that culture and it's beliefs, good on you, but let's not ignore the irrelevance of such a culture in a world where people walk on the moon; while it's charming in its innocence, from which we should and need to learn a lot, it is not a culture we can migrate to this day and age. Even if you say "screw this, I'm moving to the back of behind and living like an aboriginal does", the global world of today would mean there is no true escape; like it or not, it would catch up with you.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that while we should learn the aboriginal culture and try and take good stuff out of it, glorifying it the way Ten Canoes does is a rather pointless act. Sure, show it for what it is as a document of historical facts, but glorifying it as a culture more suitable than our current one for this day and age does it a disservice. And for the record, I have exactly the same problem with people trying to glorify Bronze Age agendas in the form of the bible in a similar manner.
The anthropologist in me was certainly aroused by Ten Canoes. The depiction of a society that openly practices polygamy, with the dominating alpha males in control while the others fight for the scraps; the suspicious feelings towards foreign tribes who "want our women", contrasted on the other hand by the active curiosity from the females towards the foreigners; all combine to make a classic evolutionary textbook case. We humans think ourselves so sophisticated behind our suits and ties, but we are very similar to our primate relatives, much more similar than most of us realize and much more similar than many of us care to admit.
Best scene: After one tribe kills a member of another tribe by mistake, retribution is made in a particularly cold blooded fashion while everyone acknowledges it is the right thing to do.
Overall: A glimpse into another world that will probably not last much longer. 3 out of 5 stars.

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