The storyteller (David Gulpilil) is going to tell us the tale of his ancestors, but first he will relate how he got to be here himself, simple enough as he used to be like a fish in a waterhole until he was born into the world, and after he dies he will return to the waterhole. Such as it was with is ancestors, of whom he will detail how they would go out into the countryside to turn trees into ten canoes for the men of some connected tribes to use. But perhaps that does not go back far enough, so we travel back in time to their ancestors, and a story of a misunderstanding...
Rolf de Heer is one of Australia's most respected directors, and after he had made The Tracker, what he saw as an important narrative of the relationship between the Aborigines and the whites in his country, he wondered why nobody was folllowing up that and similar films from the same time. Therefore he got to talking with the star of The Tracker, possibly the most celebrated native Australian actor of his generation David Gulpilil, and they devised a tale that would see an exclusively Aborigine cast in a work told in their language, from before the whites arrived.
Ten Canoes was the result, and far from being a mysterious, Walkabout-style effort that made an enigma of Gulpilil's background, here was a far more playful rendering of his people, and one with themes that anyone from anywhere in the world could relate to without much trouble. There are essentially two stories in one here, with the first group of ancestors on their excursion to find trees for canoes, and the other where the tribe's elder tells a younger man (Jamie Gulpilil, David's son) about less peaceful times of their people further back in their history.
So that we can distinguish between these two periods, the newer footage is in black and white and the more extensive older stuff is in colour, which is helpful as the same actors who play the newer tribe also play the older. The older concerns itself, as much of this film does, with the ways that tales can branch off like trees to become more and more involved, although to de Heer's credit nothing about it seems contrived. The narration only contributes to this, breaking off at crucial moments to let us know how the canoe building is coming along, which should be all rights be irritating but actually you indulge them and it grows charming.
That older part illustrates how a paranoia about the outsider, no matter where your society is, can lead to trouble unnecessarily, so that when one of the tribal leader's three wives disappears, a stranger who has been spotted in the vicinity is blamed and the situation spirals out of control, culminating in spears being thrown and people dying needlessly all on flimsy suspicions that the rival tribe had kidnapped the missing woman. If this sounds gravely serious, nothing could be further from the truth as the film exhibits a lightness of touch and wry humour that humanises its characters in the best way possible, leaving the viewer feeling educated as well as entertained. Couple this wisdom with some stunning scenery and you have a work which takes you by surprise, as it could have been dry as dust but instead brims with life, with only the reservation that it feels slighter than intended detracting from it.