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Rolf de Heer on working with an Indigenous community

By ACMI, 2009 3:02 minutes

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Rolf de Heer visited the Yolngu people in north-eastern Arnhem Land to find out the stories they wanted to tell about themselves and their culture. Ten Canoes, the film that resulted from this dialogue, was inspired by a photograph taken by white anthropologist Donald Thomson. De Heer’s obligation to deliver the colour film he was contracted to make conflicted with the Yolngu people’s expectation that he would tell their story in the style of the treasured Thomson photographs. This tension was resolved by a structural decision to use two different, intertwined narrative styles. Ten Canoes is made entirely in the language of the Yolngu people, a language marked by repetition and a gradual accumulation of information.

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Discussion Points

In the 1930s Donald Thomson spent some time living with the Yolngu people of Arnhem Land, documenting their cultural practices and way of life in thousands of photographs. These photographs have given subsequent generations of Yolngu people the opportunity to reconnect with traditional cultural practices. Thomson’s photos have become extremely important among Yolngu people because he respected and valued the individuals and lives he recorded.

  • What similarities are there between the anthropological work done by Thomson in the 1930s and the production of Ten Canoes?

Ten Canoes is the first Australian feature film to be spoken entirely in an Indigenous language.

  • Why is it so important that the Ten Canoes story was told in Ganalbingu (one of the languages of the Yolngu people)?

Rolf de Heer, Molly Reynolds and Tania Nehme released an English language documentary about the experience of making Ten Canoes called The Balanda and the Bark Canoes (2006).

  • As well as watching this documentary, go to the 12 Canoes website www.12canoes.com.au and explore the stories and culture of the Yolngu people. Listen to the Thomson story and think about its importance within Yolngu culture.