Thursday, November 5, 2009

Cross-Cultural Collaboration and Representation in ‘Indigenous’ Film: An analysis of collaborative outcomes in Ten Canoes

This essay will discuss the potential of cross-cultural collaborative film in defining and or challenging hegemonic representations of Indigenous peoples; the focus being primarily towards Australian Aboriginal peoples. Using the recent film Ten Canoes, (Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigirr, 2006) made in collaboration between the non-Indigenous director Rolf de Heer and the Yolngu people of Ramingining, this essay will discuss whether cross-collaborative film projects can practically and effectively empower Indigenous peoples as a method of resistance to cultural domination and exploitation and also as a new form of cultural memory and renewal, what Eric Michaels (1987) has called a ‘cultural future’.

A History of Misrepresentation

Representations of Aboriginal peoples in Australian film have historically been both informed by racist ideologies and conducive to the strengthening of these ideologies in mainstream Australian culture (Turner 1988, 135). Films ‘about’ (made without the collaboration of Aboriginal peoples) Aboriginal peoples in Australia continue to reinforce the hegemonic structures of cultural domination and marginalisation of Aboriginal people from the Australian mainstream. (Langton 1983). Leading Aboriginal academic Marcia Langton (1983) argues that forms of media communication in Australia have been and continue to be one of the most powerful means of defining ‘Aboriginality’. This concept of Aboriginality, Langton explains, is not solely a label to do with skin colour or the ‘ideas a person carries around in his/her head which might be labelled Aboriginal’ (e.g. kinship, language). It is understood in the same sense as the sociologist Emile Durkheim, a social thing which is constructed by both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. Importantly, the construction of Aboriginality in Australia has been largely informed, not by dialogue with Aboriginal people, but by the imagined representations of white Australia. Put simply in Langton’s (1983, 33) evocative and powerful words, ‘Australians do not know and relate to Aboriginal people, they relate to stories told by former colonists’.

Changing representations of Aboriginal people in Australian films have historically been subject to the particular agendas of white filmmakers and the hegemonic ideologies which inform and support their work (Turner 1988). Much of the post-colonial criticism of films about Aboriginal people is focused upon the more easily definable racist ideologies which underpin these popular representations (Turner 1988, 136). A synopsis of these criticisms has been outlined by Graeme Turner (1988, 136);

Most discussions of the representation of Aborigines in Australian films argue that they patronise the Aboriginal as a confused primitive; or represent them as limited and constrained by their race (or their ‘blood’) in ways not experienced by whites; or see them as a disappearing, anachronistic species for whom we should accept responsibility and feel sympathy.

The most obvious critique (and the most popular) of the continual production and re-production of racist representations, formed in lieu of cross-cultural dialogue, is that they naturalise racist assumptions within the symbols and mythology of dominant Australian culture (Turner 1988, 136, Langton 2003, 115). Turner, (1988, 136-137) however, goes a step further than most critics by questioning the ideological underpinnings of the critical calls for corrective intervention, which tend to define representation as ‘the work of accurately capturing, rather than ideologically constituting the real’. In other words, the theoretical intervention of white academics who seek to remedy the racist ideologies of mainstream Australian culture are subject to the same tendency (as the mainstream audiences) to disregard their own subjectivity, ‘to look into the mirror’ as the proverbial saying goes.

What is needed then is the construction of ‘Aboriginalities’ in actual dialogue between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in order to effectively dissolve racist representations of Aboriginal people. This need is echoed in Faye Ginsberg’s (1994, 2002) call for the creation of a ‘new discursive space’ to situate Aboriginal media in Australia; as a ‘discourse’ between Aboriginal peoples and dominant societal forces. The particular meaning of discourse in this context is explained by Marcia Langton (1987, 36);

The term discourse is the sense meant by Michel Foucault as a system of power. The subject speaks back, and the dominant culture is informed by Aboriginal cultural practices, particularly practices of resistance.

In this sense, self-representation is a powerful tool for ‘speaking back’ to the dominant ideologies which have historically been deaf to Aboriginal voices. However, if taken as the only avenue for Aboriginal representation in Australia, self-representation can become a trap which essentialises Aboriginal people (Davis 2007, 6). In relation to this problem, Marcia Langton (1983, 27) argues that;

There is a naive belief that Aboriginal people will make ‘better’ representations of us, [Aboriginal peoples] simply because being Aboriginal gives ‘greater‘ understanding. This belief is based on an ancient and universal feature of racism: the assumption of the undifferentiated Other. More specifically, the assumption that all Aborigines are alike and equally understand each other, without regard to cultural variation, history, gender, sexual preference and so on. It is a demand for censorship: there is a ‘right’ way to be Aboriginal, and any Aboriginal film or video producer will necessarily make a ‘true’ representation of ‘Aboriginality’.

Accordingly, the problem of Aboriginal representations in Australia is not simply an Aboriginal problem to be addressed by superficial processes of self-representation. In order to avoid a history of misrepresentation what is required of non-Aboriginal filmmakers is an acknowledgement of the role of white Australia in defining and perpetuating Aboriginal representations in Australia. Only from this position of self-awareness will non-Aboriginal people involved in cross-cultural collaboration with Aboriginal peoples be able to avoid the more subtle elements of racist representations.

Protocols and Guidelines: Theory Vs. Practice

As recognition of the history of colonial exploitation of Aboriginal peoples has become more prevalent in Australia, there has been an institutional response in the form of ethical protocols and guidelines for non-Indigenous filmmakers working with Aboriginal peoples (Davis 2007, 6). Protocols and guidelines such as the SBS Independent Guidelines (Bostock 1990, Johnson 2000) were introduced with the intention of making formal recognition that;

Development, production and dissemination of films involving Aboriginal issues and stories are subject to ethics common to media practice in all their works. And issues of appropriation, of respectful cultural representation, of equity and creative control are particularly pertinent to collaborative processes in relation to Aboriginal stories. (as cited in Peters-Little 1993)

Ethical guidelines and protocols provide a framework for cross-collaborative film which ensures that non-Indigenous participants are informed by the cultural requirements of Aboriginal people and that the production of these films reflect such awareness (Janke 2009, 11). Whilst the theoretical underpinning of these guidelines and protocols promote equally beneficial cross-cultural collaboration, they are often problematic in that they are extremely difficult to practically achieve (Peters-Little 1993). The difficulties, ranging from the unfamiliarity of actors and other participants with filming procedures and techniques, to the differing intentions of Aboriginal people involved in the creative process, have led Francis Peters-Little (1993) to conclude that;

In fact the protocols are almost impossible to follow filmmakers, writers and artists are constantly faced with the demand that their work be approved by the Aboriginal community, yet this demand is almost impossible to meet.

Accordingly, the impracticability of ethical protocols and guidelines for cross-cultural collaboration in Australia means that the ultimate value of these films, for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people, can be most adequately judged after their production. The challenge, argues Frances Peters-Little, (1993) ‘is for black and white filmmakers to become more courageous in their representations of Aboriginal people, as human beings deserving of justice and constructive criticism’. Thus, what is needed are cross-cultural films which celebrate both the unique differences of cultures and their interconnectedness. Accordingly, the central focus of the next section of this essay is an analysis of the collaborative project Ten Canoes (Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigirr 2006) in the light of such needs.

Cross-Cultural Collaboration in Ten Canoes

The critically acclaimed film Ten Canoes is a particularly significant example of cross-cultural collaboration between Aboriginal people (Yolngu people of Ramingining, North-East Arnhem Land) and a non-Indigenous Australian director (Rolf de Heer). In light of this essay, part of the significance of the project is due to the propensity of the film to facilitate the meaningful communication of a unique cultural (specifically Yolngu) story to audiences unfamiliar with such content. Because of its wide popular appeal, Ten Canoes has the capacity to add considerable substance to the development of a new discursive space within which non-Aboriginal people are given access to a powerful vision of Aboriginal culture and a rich spectrum of representations. Accordingly, the purpose of this analysis is to discover whether this film has been successful in adding to this new discursive space between cultures and further, how it enables the empowerment of the Aboriginal people who called for and made this film possible.

Bringing the two cultures together

The difficulty with cross-cultural collaboration between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal peoples in Australian is not solely a product of cultural difference, although this is certainly an important factor. Any such collaboration in Australia cannot avoid the vestiges of a history of colonial oppression; the continued legacies of exploitation and inequality and the existing structures of hegemonic dominance (Langton 1983, 24). Central to the continuation of this hegemonic dominance in film is the positioning of white filmmakers (behind the lens) as subject and Aboriginal peoples as objects (Langton 1983, 39). Accordingly, the task then for de Heer in making Ten Canoes possible, was to bring a Yolngu story into the folds of Western media paradigms whilst retaining its cultural integrity; an endeavour which requires both an acute awareness of the history of dominance and misrepresentation and a reflexive self-awareness which rejects the objectification of Aboriginal peoples. In what can be seen as a response to this awareness, de Heer carefully defines his role in the Ten Canoes project as a medium between the Yolngu people of Ramingining and the Western media forms with which he is familiar. This is evidenced by the following statements;

People talk about, what is a white director doing making an Indigenous story? But I’m not... They’re telling the story, largely, and I’m the mechanism by which they can (as quoted in Starrs 2007).

The way of storytelling that [the Yolngu people] have is different to our storytelling, and it really was a question of trying to combine these two. I wanted to make something and they wanted to make something that was authentic to them, and mostly from their point of view. That was OK without it being articulated, but I understood also that it had to work in a Western storytelling tradition. It had to combine the two. If there was one big issue for me all the time, it was how best to fuse the two things so that it’s authentic to them but it works for us. (as quoted in Davis 2007, 7).

What these two statements reveal about cross-cultural collaboration is that these kind of projects are unavoidably permeated by both cultures’ differing systems of knowledge and practice. Thus, in attempting to bring the two together, in fulfilling the needs of both cultures, the utilisation of a dynamic hybrid mode of storytelling is paramount to the success of the project.

Collaborative Outcomes in Ten Canoes

The importance of Ten Canoes for both cinema and inter-cultural relations in Australia is suitably measured by its ability to successfully live up to the intentions of the Yolngu people of Ramingining, (as represented here by the famed Aboriginal actor and collaborator in this project David Gulpilil) which was to ‘allow people in the community and around the world to know how our ancestors lived and to understand them’ (as cited in Davis 2007, 5). For ‘people around the world,’ it is exactly this exposure to knowledge, which is given directly by the Yolngu people, that can be seen as constituting a progressive step towards cultural understanding. In other words, gaining access to an ‘emic’ (coming from within the culture) Aboriginal cultural perspective, involves a more intimate understanding of those who are other, an experience which is central to the breakdown of racist stereotypes and assumptions (Headland et al. 1990).

In order to facilitate the translation of cultural knowledge into something accessible for non-Aboriginal audiences, de Heer was required to challenge conventional Western filmmaking practices (Davis 2007, 10). An example of this was in the unorthodox casting procedures of Ten Canoes which saw the final responsibility for who would act in the film ceded, largely because of their intimate knowledge of kinship systems, (the upholding of these systems is necessary in Yolngu culture as there is not the same distinction between ‘real’ and fictional realities as in Western traditions) to senior Yolngu people involved in the film (Davis 2007, 11). Similarly, Ten Canoes broke new ground in the recognition of Indigenous property rights by recognising the Ramingining community’s entitlement to ownership of all artifacts and sets made for and used in the film (Davis 2007, 7).

In many ways, Ten Canoes offers a vision of Aboriginal culture and history which challenges the hegemonic representations of Aboriginal peoples, their cultures and histories in Australia (Davis 2007, 11). The use language in the film is one important example of this, as is argued by Starrs (2007) in the following passage;

By privileging the Ganalbingu dialogue for the actors, an indigenous accent for the English voice-over by well-known Aboriginal actor Gulpilil, and an Aboriginal style of cascading repetition narration, de Heer’s film articulates as Aboriginal in three ways and serves as a rare example of cinema that elevates the marginalised Aboriginal people and their overlooked culture.

In similar fashion, Davis (2007, 11) argues that the way in which the narration (in English by David Gupilil) is used in the film, ‘acknowledge[s] the contemporaneity of the Yolngu people... by bringing the mythical past into the present, the ‘now time’ of the film’s reception’.

One of the most powerful outcomes of Ten Canoes lies in the way representations of Aboriginal people contest hegemonic representations in Australia (Davis 2007, 10). Starrs (2007) expands this point succinctly when he states that;

The “magpie goose people” of Arnhem Land are portrayed as empowered and in control of their language, their culture and their lives, rather than conforming with the frequent media presentation of Aboriginals as passive victims of colonial aggression, disrespect, and maltreatment.

The inter-cultural value of this alternative vision of Aboriginal culture is that it gives non-Aboriginal people access to positive and strong representations of Aboriginal culture. This is largely facilitated by the development of archetypal characters with a rich and diverse range of human characteristics (Davis 2007, 10).

Arguably the most significant outcome of the Ten Canoes project is in its integration of a story from the cultural past into the present, constituting, in the words of Eric Michaels, (1987) ‘a cultural future,’ within which film acts as a new medium for continuing cultural memory. Considered also the renewal of traditional practices such as the making of bark canoes and goose egg hunting, the Ten Canoes project can be seen as an empowering and uplifting experience for the Yolngu people, as evidenced by the following comment from Michael Dawu, who plays one of the ten canoeists;

Ten Canoes […] brings me my memory back and my energy. You wake me up. I have to thank you [Rolf] for it, because you was like this […] ‘Hey, come on, get up, you’ll have to bring your memory.’ But memory gone. ‘Here, you’ll have to follow like that then, like the old people, and you can make this one film and bring that memory back!’ (as quoted in Davis 2006).


The history of exploitation and misrepresentation of Aboriginal peoples in Australian film has been recurrently shown in this essay as a symptom of cultural dominance and hegemonic power. Accordingly the difficulties involved in cross-cultural collaborations in film become amplified when undertaken in a setting wherein one culture occupies a dominant position over the other. It is thus with an awareness of this imbalance and a willingness to act in subversion of hegemonic ideologies that cross-cultural collaborations between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in Australian can begin to turn the tide of ill informed and harmful representations of Aboriginal people as the other in Australian society. Ten Canoes does just this. Whilst being subject to the ever-present problems of history and cultural difference, the overriding effect of the film is to enrich cross-cultural relations in Australia by giving non-Aboriginal people a meaningful insight into Aboriginal culture whilst simultaneously giving Aboriginal people a voice to speak loudly for themselves. Ultimately, de Heer’s role in Ten Canoes can bee seen as a defining feature of his films in that ‘the fundamental goal of [his] films can be seen as one of providing an amplified voice for the unheard, the marginalised, the Other.’ (Starrs 2007).


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