Friday, October 31, 2008

Film and Indigeneity

RELN2011 Research Essay – ‘Film and Indigeneity’
By Michael Curd

In 2000, art-house director Rolf de Heer was approached by Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil to help write and direct a film about his people – the Ramingining people of North Eastern Arnhem Land. What resulted was the film ‘Ten Canoes’, a Dreamtime story of “doomed love, kidnapping, sorcery, bungling misadventures and ill-directed revenge.” (Starrs, D.B. (2007) (online)) The cross-cultural collaboration between Rolf de Heer and the Ramingining people gave birth to a film which gives meaning to both indigenous and non-indigenous people. Through the partnership of these two forces, Balanda (non-indigenous) director Rolf de Heer was able to act as a tool for the marginalised people of Ramingining to present their story to a worldwide audience. To the non-indigenous, ‘Ten Canoes’ provides an insight into the cultural differences of the indigenous Australians, and to the Aborigines, it is a recognition of the memories of the traditions, meanings and way of life. The cross-cultural collaboration between de Heer and the Ramingining people can also be seen as a symbol of the reconciliation between the Balanda and indigenous Australians in a national sense, as both groups continue to right the wrongs of the past. ‘Ten Canoes’ counters the hegemonic view of indigenous Australians, showing them as powerful, as opposed to repressed and disadvantaged. In recent times, many indigenous Australians have begun to take control of not only their own lives and communities, but have actively led the charge to create awareness of Australia’s indigenous culture to Australia and beyond, dispelling the negative connotations, and emancipating their people in a bid for equality.

Italian philosopher Antonia Gramsci formulated the most widely acknowledged concept of ‘hegemony’, a term commonly recognised in the problem of the marginalisation of indigenous Australians. Gramsci regards hegemony as “a form of control exercised by a dominant class.” (Postcolonial studies at Emory (2008) (online)) Hegemony is thus evident in the “borders, boundaries, edges and complex relations within and between indigenous and non-indigenous territories in Australia.” (Howitt, R. (2002) pg. 233) In the article, ‘The Authentic Aboriginal Voice in Rolf de Heer’s ‘Ten Canoes’’, author D. Bruno Starrs notes that according to the dominant perspective of the Australian media, indigenous Australians are “passive victims of colonial aggression… [with] problems of substance abuse, domestic violence, unemployment, and reduced life expectancy.” (Starrs, D.B. (2007) (online)) This hegemonic view of indigenous Australians has not come about without evidence. In October 2008, it has been reported that there has been “a sharp rise in petrol-sniffing in Aboriginal communities.” (Medindia (2008) (online)) Furthermore, Australian officials reported that “Aboriginal children as young as five have developed an addiction.” (Medindia (2008) (online)) Petrol sniffing amongst Aboriginal communities is seen as an opportunity for an escape from the reality of poverty and community struggles. However, as stated by author D. Bruno Starrs, “one must not assume they have always been that way – or will always be so.” (Starrs, D.B. (2007) (online)) Thus, the film ‘Ten Canoes’ acts as a counter-hegemonic view of the Aboriginal community in Australia, not ignoring the present situation of indigenous communities, but acting as a memory and a contribution to the amplification of the marginalised voice of Australian Aborigines.

The key to the success of ‘Ten Canoes’ was the intercultural fusion between white Australian director Rolf de Heer and the indigenous Ramingining people in creating a film that enabled the Aboriginal community to reflect upon their spiritual connection to the land. Moreover, the film gave them an opportunity to tell the story of their past to a worldwide audience, simultaneously privileging the Aboriginal culture of the present. Author Therese Davis sees de Heer’s role in ‘Ten Canoes’ as a twofold process; “he is both an auteur…and an artisan, a skilled craftsman at the service of the Yolngu people who…very much wanted him to help them to make a film that would show a wider audience that their culture, their past, is ‘of value’.” (Davis, T. (2007) pg. 7) Rolf de Heer sees his role in the production of the film in a similar light, explaining to TIME Pacific journalist Michael Fitzgerald; “They’re telling the story, largely, and I’m the mechanism by which they can.” (Rolf de Heer in Starrs, D.B. (2007) (online)) It is thus evident that while ‘Ten Canoes’ is seen as a cross-cultural piece of film, it is the Ramingining people who are telling the story, with de Heer acting as a tool by which they can use to distribute to a worldwide audience.

Both Rolf de Heer and the Ramingining people of North Eastern Arnhem Land had to pinpoint the way in which the film was to be produced in order to achieve the goals of reclaiming the memories of the Ramingining people’s past for present and future generations; and to counter the hegemonic view of indigenous Australians as ‘troubled’. In an interview with indie movie website ‘indieWIRE’, ‘Ten Canoes’ director Rolf de Heer stated that one of the primary goals of his approach to the film was to “do everything to make [the production] a true collaboration. What [everyone] wanted was a film that they could show their children and say, ‘this is where you come from.’ But it was also to be a film that could play around the world so that people could understand something of Aboriginal culture and recognize it, value it.” (Rolf de Heer in indieWIRE (2007) (online)) ‘Ten Canoes’ has been highly praised in its successful cross-cultural collaboration between Balanda and indigenous Australians. De Heer made sure that in order to achieve this, he made sure the Ramingining people had much input in the retelling of their ancestral fable. An example of this is in the ‘Ten Canoes Agreement’, a legal contract between the film’s producers and the Ramingining people. As noted by author Therese Davis, the agreement was formulated in order to respect the property and moral rights of the Ramingining people. Moreover, “unlike most films in which producers have rights of ownership for all materials used in a film…the Ten Canoes Agreement recognizes the Ramingining community’s property rights for all artefacts and sets made for and used in this film.” (Davis, T. (2007) pg. 6-7) Indigenous Australians are noted to be spiritually attached to places and the land to which their ancestors as well as they belong to. Thus, through the Ten Canoes Agreement contract, the non-indigenous producers of ‘Ten Canoes’ are seen as actively privileging the Ramingining people’s values and beliefs.

More steps were taken to ensure that the retelling of the Aborigine’s Dreamtime story was produced with respect, valuing and upholding the Ramingining people’s cultural traditions. Author D. Bruno Starrs notes that because the movie was spoken in Ganalbingu (the Aboriginal language spoken by the Ramingining people), international distributors of the film requested a dubbed version. However, because the actors in ‘Ten Canoes’ didn’t give permission, director and producer Rolf de Heer declined the request, thus preserving the Ramingining people’s “cultural desire to have their language heard and known.” (Starrs, D.B. (2007) (online)) However, Rolf de Heer came across the challenge of the language difference during the filming of ‘Ten Canoes’, in which there was much room for miscommunication and misunderstanding. Rolf de Heer states “the biggest challenges were language because there is no one who speaks both Ganalbingu and English fluently.” (Rolf de Heer in indieWIRE, (2007) (online)) Nevertheless, through the privileging of the Ganalbingu dialogue, using the English narration of Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil using his indigenous accent in the film, and incorporating the Aboriginal storytelling narration style of ‘cascading repetition’, de Heer further elevates the status of the Aboriginal culture.

Many indigenous people that worked on ‘Ten Canoes’ and were directly involved in the cross-cultural collaboration praised Rolf de Heer for successfully producing a film that reflected the Ramingining people’s culture. Indigenous actor David Gulpilil, who narrated ‘Ten Canoes’ stated that the film achieved what it aimed to do; to create awareness for a worldwide audience, and to educate their own people (the Ramingining) who no longer are aware of the significance of their tribe’s stories and traditions. In an interview with film critic David Stratton, Gulpilil states, “this film will go to every young person who want to see it, not only black fellas but the European kids…and the young one that growing up and they going to high schools and universities…because this is something that has never been told and never been made and never been shown.” (David Gulpilil in At the Movies, (2007) (online)) Frances Djulibinj, who also participated in ‘Ten Canoes’, saw the film as a response to the urgent need to revive the memory of the Ramingining culture. Djulibinj states; “Everything is changing; everything is going, going, gone now. The only thing the children know is some ceremony…they not even normal kids anymore. Maybe they gonna keep this film with them so they can put it in their head.” (Frances Djulibinj in Davis, T. (2007) pg. 12) While ‘Ten Canoes’ can be viewed as a film giving an amplified voice to the indigenous communities in Australia through the representations of Aborigines as strong and powerful owners of the Australian land, the film also aims at preserving a memory of life for a culture who sees their traditions as rapidly vanishing with each new generation.

In following with the interest of the Aboriginal culture caused by the popularity of ‘Ten Canoes’, the Ramingining people have moved to the internet in another opportunity to generate awareness. Moreover, indigenous Australians have begun to reach out in different fields of work, media and education to inform non-indigenous Australians, either explicitly or implicitly, about their history and their culture. As a way of further sharing the “stories and the culture, past and present, of the Yolngu people of the Ramingining community,” (CG Publicity (2008) (online)) the Ramingining people initiated the website ’12 Canoes’ ( As stated in the article ‘Thousands paddle through’, the website has had visitors from “128 countries…including Australia, the US, Canada, Germany…Uzbekistan, Uganda, Greenland, the Dominican Republic, Mongolia, Iran and Kuwait.” (CG Publicity (2008) (online)) Twelve Canoes describes the reasoning for the site’s creation, stating;
“…we have history and culture here [in Ramingining], that our ancestors have been growing for more than forty thousand years. They passed that culture on from generation to generation. Now it’s our turn to pass it on, not just to the next generation, but to people everywhere, all over the world. That’s because our way of life is changing fast now, and what you can see on this website is for every generation to remember and keep our culture alive.” (Twelve Canoes (2008) (online))
It is thus evident that the Twelve Canoes website, similar to ‘Ten Canoes’, is attempting to preserve the memory of the life, the history and the culture of the Yolngu people through generating awareness through a worldwide means of communication.

In more local terms, amongst public schools in Queensland throughout 2008, a workshop entitled ‘The Big Picture’ has been initiated; an interactive experience for primary school students run by Indigenous Australians. It gives students an opportunity to “explore an Indigenous perspective of Australian history…expand…[their] knowledge and understanding of Indigenous cultures, explore attitudes, beliefs, facts and myths…[and] policies and Acts that impacted on Indigenous cultures.” (Education Queensland (2008) (online)). A new Australian television program, ‘First Australians’ also gives Australians an opportunity to become educated on the truth of the indigenous history in Australia. One of the interviewees in the documentary notes the current change in perception between non-indigenous and indigenous Australians, noting, “There’s this very curious and very touching attempt to come together and comprehend.” (Unknown in SBS (2008) (online)) In yet another example of countering the hegemonic view of Australian society, Indigenous former athlete Nova Peris produced a calendar in 2007 featuring fourteen indigenous women posing for the first mainstream all-indigenous swimsuit calendar. Peris’ primary goal for the project was to show Aboriginal women as they really are, dispelling the negative connotations from the media. Shannon McGuire, one of the models for the calendar, spoke out about her frustration of the stereotyping and othering of indigenous Australians by the media, saying, “They don’t see the beauty in the culture because everything in the media is so negative. All you’ve got to do is take a look.” (Shannon McGuire in Gibson, J. (2007) (online)) Through creating awareness in primary schools as well as print media and national television, it is evident that indigenous Australians are actively voicing their pride and respect for their traditions, values and beliefs, and are countering the hegemonic view of Aborigines as a ‘marginalised group’.

While the Australian media may still be presenting a hegemonic view of ‘repressed’ and ‘disadvantaged’ Aborigines, there is evidence that since the change of the federal government, white Australians are voicing their concerns over the unfair treatment of indigenous Australians, and are actively finding ways to resolve the wrongdoings of the past. On 13th February 2008, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd read an apology addressed to the indigenous community in regard to the mistreatment of the Aborigines linked with the stolen generation, reciting, “The time has truly come…for all Australians, those who are indigenous and those who are not to come together, truly reconcile and together build a truly great nation.” (Kevin Rudd in Sydney Morning Herald (2008) (online)) Since the apology, the Australian government has given back the iconic Devil’s Marbles landmark to traditional Aboriginal landowners. Federal Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin echoed Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s call for action, stating, “(Prime Minister Kevin Rudd) said that we must deal with the unfinished business of the nation…These people have fought for years to protect this place…And, I sincerely hope that these hand-backs will provide a sense of peace of relief.” (Jenny Macklin in The Age Online (2008) (online)) On 28th October 2008, Governor-General Quentin Bryce expressed her disapproval over the continuing disparity between white Australians and indigenous people in regards to health care and work opportunity, and plans to “provide an ear and a voice for indigenous Australians.” (Lunn, S. (2008) (online)) Bryce sees her role as a representative voice as well as a listening ear for Aboriginal communities across Australia in helping to combat inequality and to fully reconcile. Therefore, it is evident that along with numerous indigenous activists, white Australians are also assisting in vanquishing the hegemonic view of ‘disadvantaged’, ‘troublesome’ and ‘repressed’ Aborigines, by righting the wrongs of the past, and, recalling upon the memories of the past in order to move forward into the future.

In conclusion, Rolf de Heer’s cross-cultural collaboration proves to be not only a representation of a Balanda director and the Ramingining people of North Eastern Arnhem Land working together to counter the hegemonic world view of Australian Aborigines as ‘troubled’, and to generate awareness to present and future generations of indigenes about their ancestry. The making of ‘Ten Canoes’ is a living symbol of the cross-cultural collaboration between indigenous Australians and non-indigenous Australians in a broader sense. ‘Ten Canoes’ establishes the need to tell a Dreamtime story of a rapidly diminishing culture and tradition, in order to hold on to the values and beliefs for future generations. Similarly in the wider Australian community, indigenous Australians are empowered to share their history and their pride with the rest of Australia, through activities such as primary school workshops, a television program, and even swimsuit calendars. In the making of ‘Ten Canoes’, director Rolf de Heer saw his role as a mechanism by which the Yolngu people could use to recreate their story. De Heer states that while there were issues of misunderstanding between cultures, once these barriers were broken, then true collaboration was able to come about, and goals were achieved. This is a living symbol of the way in which the present Australian Government has now embraced the notion of moving forward, and although there have been troubles along the way, through working through the misunderstandings, reconciliation, equality and recognition can be achieved.

At The Movies, ‘Ten Canoes Interview’ [online]. Available: [28.10.08]
CG Publicity, 2008, ‘Thousands paddle through’, eBroadcast, 8 October [online]. Available: [28.10.08]
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Howitt, R. 2002, ‘Frontiers, Borders, Edges: Liminal Challenges to the Hegemony of Exclusion’, Australian Geographical Studies, 39, 2, pg. 233-245
indieWIRE, 2007, ‘indieWIRE INTERVIEW – “Ten Canoes” co-Director Rolf de Heer’, 3 June [online]. Available:
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Sydney Morning Herald Online, 2008, ‘Kevin Rudd says sorry’, Sydney Morning Herald, 13 February [online]. Available: [28.10.08]
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Twelve Canoes [online]. Available: [28.10.08]

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