Sunday, August 23, 2009

Changing Perspectives of Aboriginal Spirituality: A FIlm Review of 'Ten Canoes' and 'Samson and Delilah'
By Janine Quine

Fact - Aboriginal people are the most marginalised group in Australia. Many white Australians would describe Aboriginal people as: petrol sniffers, alcoholics, child molesters, shadowy figures that are to be pitied or repulsed, the instigators of their own problems and unable to look after their own backyards. Some might even refer to them as noble savages once, but whose beliefs cannot fit comfortably in this post-modern, rationalistic and capitalistic Western world. It is difficult to totally blame a predominantly passive public for this negative stereotyping when they are fed on a diet of overwhelmingly negative media images. There has been minimal media attention given to acknowledging Aboriginal people as having been stripped of their land, their beliefs and traditions and their sense of cultural and spiritual identity. Even less attention has been paid to trying to understand the cultural, social and spiritual importance that ‘ country’ (traditional land) holds for Aboriginal people and the resulting difference in their way of thinking, understanding and being.

Two films, Ten Canoes and Samson and Delilah, winners of a multitude of national and international film awards, are proving to be groundbreaking movies in shifting some of our perceptions of what it means to be Aboriginal. What makes these films so powerful is that they are both a profoundly insider representation of the Aboriginal experience, exploring issues of identity, community and belonging. Neither film points an accusatory finger at us, the white settlers, whose invasion and colonisation of Aboriginal land has had a far reaching and devastating impact on their whole way of life. Instead, both films engage non-Indigenous viewers and persuade them of the value of Aboriginal ways of being in the world. They help us broaden our current perspective, to examine new sources, experiences and knowledge.

Ten Canoes is a culturally authentic and spiritually rich Australian film dealing with Aboriginality before white settlement. It is a result of the partnership between the director and writer Rolf de Heer and the Ramingining Aboriginal community and the first feature made entirely in an Australian indigenous language . Underlying Ten Canoes is the respect Aboriginals have for the art of storytelling as a means of entertainment and a carrier of tribal meaning and solidarity. The story is actually a story within a story and takes place in two periods in the past. In the first story, shot in black and white, a young man, Dayindi (Jamie Gulpilil), takes part in an expedition in South Arnhem Land. When his older brother Minygululu (Peter Minygululu), an elder who is leading the expedition, learns that Dayindi lusts after his young and pretty third wife, he decides to tell him an ancient story about the old laws and a young man who was in a similar predicament. The point of the story is to teach his younger brother the proper way to behave, after all a tale that is told properly and can be truly understood can transform lives.

The second story is the playing out of the ancient story that Minygululu tells Dayindi and is shot in colour. Jamie Gulpilil plays Yeeralparil who fancies the third wife of the warrior Ridjimiraril (Crusoe Kurddal). When Ridjimiraril’s second wife goes missing he wrongfully spears a stranger in the mistaken belief that he is the kidnapper. When Ridjimiraril must face the stranger’s clan in a formalised and ritualised form of punishment – spears being thrown by the aggrieved family until blood is drawn - he chooses Yeeralparil to stand beside him. However, when Ridjimiraril is mortally wounded Yeeralparil inherits all his wives., as is the custom. The new responsibilities are more than Yeeralparil expects.

Ten Canoes is an important film for a number of reasons. Firstly, it powerfully conveys the strong sense of closeness, dependency and spiritual connection that (many)Indigenous people have for their ancestral lands, a fact that has not been truly understood by many non-Indigenous people. Secondly, it invites both Indigenous and non-Indigenous viewers from other parts of Australia, to glimpse the ancient world of the Yolngu and their cultural beliefs and traditions, which are far from dead. Thirdly, all can relate to the universality of the film’s themes: desires, fears, and human flaws and that wisdom can be gleaned from the stories and lives of our ancestors. Fourthly, humour connects us all. There are plenty of jokes about flatulence and sexual performance among the men as they go about their tasks in the swamps fighting off mosquitoes and avoiding crocodiles. Finally, through the medium of film, the Ramingining Aboriginal community will be able pass their culture down to the youth who are increasingly influenced by modern technology and ideas.

Director and Screenwriter, Warrick Thornton

Samson and Delilah, on the other hand, deals with the complexities and contradictions of living in post-colonial Australia. Written and directed by Aboriginal Warrick Thornton, it is an unusual love story between two 14 year olds, Delilah (Marissa Gibson) and Samson (Rowan McNamara). Delilah spends her days caring for her dying grandmother while Samson spends most of his time sniffing petrol when he is not trying to catch Delilah’s attention. Set in a remote Aboriginal community in the desert, a temporal quality of life is established where nothing happens except for the tediousness of the daily routines. This is a community of many different clans who have been separated from their ‘countries” (traditional lands) and a rich and intricate social and spiritual way of life, a life more dynamic than the boredom that now permeates.

After Delilah’s grandmother dies ,circumstances force Delilah and Samson to flee the community. As exiles in Alice Spring, their ‘otherness’ becomes more painfully apparent when contrasted with the predominantly, and economically better off, ‘white’ society. Their love strengthens as they become more out of sync with the rest of the world, their lives spiraling into repeated cycles of violence, homelessness, hunger, physical and verbal abuse, the eventual rape of Delilah by white men and the total physical, mental and spiritual undoing of Samson.

After a serious accident, Delilah takes control and forces Samson to go back with her to her grandmother’s ‘country’ in order that they can be healed. This is an important point as it is not to the community that they lived in previously, but to a sparse and remote land that has enormous spiritual connection for them. It is also one of many places that are denied to Aboriginal people because of the lack of understanding of government and the broader Australian community. Yet, under Delilah’s gentle and loving hand, in Delilah’s ‘country’, both are brought back to spiritual and physical health.

Whilst Ten Canoes and Samson and Delilah cannot actually be termed as ‘popular culture’ in Hjavard’s terms, both directors have made effective use of what he terms the three metaphors of media communication – media as a conduit, as a language and as an environment. They have unarguably used film as a conduit, a powerful message carrier to subtly represent the spiritual, cultural and social elements of an Aboriginal way of being and understanding. Secondly, the films as a language have subtly moulded the imaginations of the audience to at least find validity in a different way of seeing the world. Finally, the films as cultural and spiritual environments provide both indigenous and non-indigenous viewers with a framework for understanding Aboriginal spirituality and the importance of ‘country’ in living a moral and spiritual life. It is evident that these films are a source of cultural, spiritual and social capital for Aboriginal people in strengthening their own understanding of what Aboriginality meant and what it means now in post colonial Australia. The message of these films can empower Aborigianal communities as spiritual, social and political entities, able to fight against the social inequalities that still exist in Australia today. For the non-Indigenous people, these films have the power to alter our perception of Aboriginality and therefore be co-instigators in bringing about social and political change.

Ingmar Bergman was once quoted as saying that film “goes straight to your emotions, deep into the twilight room of the soul.” Both Ten Canoes and Samson and Delilah do this and provide possibilities for new outcomes in our history of race relations with Australia’s indigenous people. After all, a tale that is told properly and can be truly understood can transform lives.

Reference List

Bourdieu, P. (1973). Cultural reproduction and social reproduction. In R. Brown (Ed.),

Knowledge, education and cultural change (pp. 71–112). London: Tavistock.

Deger, J. (2006). Shimmering screens: making media in an aboriginal community.

Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Hjarvard, S. (2008). The Mediatization of Religion . Northern Lights, 6 (1), 9-26.

Images provided by

Samson and Delilah trailer provided by

Ten Canoes trailer provided by


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