directed by Rolf de Heer, Peter Djigirr
Australia 2006


You know this movie is going to be something special when Gulpilil begins his narration with “Once upon a time in a land far, far away…” only to break up with laughter: “No, not like that. I’m only joking.”

The first feature film entirely in an Australian Aboriginal language, “Ten Canoes” combines ethnographic with old-fashioned story-telling to tremendous effect. The cast consists mostly of members of the Ramingining Aboriginal people who also co-wrote the script along with director Rolf de Heer with co-direction credit to Peter Djigirr.

In a “modern” day story, young Dayindi (Jamie Gulpilil, David Gulpilil’s son) has fallen in love with his older brother’s third and youngest wife. The older brother is well aware of the problem, and decides to teach his little brother the proper way to live by recounting a story from the past. In the “older” story, Yeeralparil (also Jamie Gulpilil) falls in love with third and youngest wife of his older brother Ridjimiraril (Crusoe Kurddal). Ridjimiraril also has life lessons to share with his younger brother, but the mythological tale deviates from the modern day one as outside events shake up the tribe’s wife, especially the disappearance of one of Ridjimiraril’s wives, and the frightening appearance of a stranger believed to be sorcerer. David Gulpilil’s sly, confident narration in English serves a dual role of guiding the viewer through unfamiliar territory, but also claiming ownership of the story for the Ramingining: “It’s not your story, it’s my story.”

I placed the words “modern” and “older” in quotes because one of the most fascinating things about the film is seeing how little has changed between the two time frames; the only stylistic marker between the two is a shift from black and white to color. In fact, there’s really no way to know when either story takes place – the “older” tale could just as easily happened 20 years ago as 2000. Likewise the “modern” story. It’s all part of the oral tradition of the Ramingining people, and just as alive for them as if it was happening now.

Though the film presents a world and a people few viewers will recognize and lingers on the drop-dead gorgeous landscapes, it never delves into ethically questionable exoticism. One of the main tools used to avoid that trap is the frequent use of humor, often quite dirty. In fact, the film begins with a solemn line of men walking through the wilderness. The man at the back runs up to complain that somebody up front keeps farting: everyone laughs until one man finally fesses up to having dealt it; he’s moved to the back of the line. Apparently, bodily functions amuse men of all cultures.

The movie is beautifully filmed by Ian Jones, who also worked with de Heer and David Gulpilil of “The Tracker” (2002), also an excellent film. The movie was inspired, in part, by photographs taken in the 1930s by anthropologist David Thomson; the title, in fact, is taken from a Thompson photograph of ten canoeists. The photographs serve both as a template for the look of the film (several shots are taken from them) as well as some of the events in the story.

Let’s keep it simple. “Ten Canoes” is a great story told exceptionally well. It was one of the very best films of 2006, and I strongly recommend it to anyone who missed it in its brief theatrical run, which is just about
everybody stateside considering the film only grossed $220,000 in the U.S.

Christopher Long


Theatrical Release: June 29, 2006 (Australia), June 1, 2007 (USA)

Reviews    More Reviews  DVD Reviews

DVD Review: Palm Pictures - Region 0 - NTSC

Big thanks to Christopher Long for the Review!

DVD Box Cover

CLICK to order from:


Palm Pictures

Region 0 - NTSC

Runtime 92 min.

1.78:1 Original Aspect Ratio

16X9 enhanced
Average Bitrate: 6.10 mb/s
NTSC 720x480 29.97 f/s

NOTE: The Vertical axis represents the bits transferred per second. The Horizontal is the time in minutes.


Audio Aboriginal, English
Subtitles English
Features Release Information:
Studio: Palm Pictures

Aspect Ratio:
Widescreen anamorphic - 1.78:1

Edition Details:
• Making of Feature:
• Aerial View of Arnhem Land
• David Thomson Photographs
• Interview with Rolf de Heer
• Interview with Peter Djigirr

DVD Release Date: Sept 25, 2007
Keep case

Chapters 18




Unfortunately, this is another case of Great Film, Mediocre DVD from Palm Pictures. The interlaced transfer exhibits numerous examples of combing, and also doesn’t do justice to much of the beautiful aerial photography which looks blurry in parts. The colors are rich and vibrant, and the DVD is certainly watchable, but it doesn’t do justice to the gorgeous visuals in the film. This might be a Pal to NTSC transfer using the same source as the Region 0 PAL DVD released in Australia in July 2007 (according to Amazon). I don’t have that version to make a comparison.

The DVD includes a 2.0 Stereo track and a 5.1 Dolby Surround track. Optional English subtitles are offered, but not for Gulpilil’s English narration which is sometimes slightly difficult to make out but this is a very minor problem.

There are some nice extras here as well, including a substantial documentary (51 min.) about the making of the film “The Balanda and the Bark Canoes,” directed by de Heer and documentarians Molly Reynolds and Tania Nehme. I have only watched half of this so far, but I like what I’ve seen. The DVD also provides some contextual information including a Google Earth-style aerial map of the territory where “Ten Canoes” was filmed (Arnhem land) and a short feature (4 min) which compares some of the original Thompson photographs to shots from “Ten Canoes.” Also included are brief interviews with Rolf de Heer (4 min) and co-director Peter Djigirr (4 min.)

The transfer isn’t so bad that you should rule out picking it up since the film is so great, but let’s hold out hope for a superior version sometime soon (perhaps the Australian release is better – anyone know?) My suggestion: rent it for the movie and the extras, then decide if you can live with the mediocre quality.


 - Christopher Long


DVD Menus



Screen Captures

Subtitle Sample



















Example of combing




DVD Box Cover

CLICK to order from:


Palm Pictures

Region 0 - NTSC


Hit Counter












DONATIONS Keep DVDBeaver alive:

Mail cheques, money orders, cash to:    or CLICK PayPal logo to donate!

Gary Tooze

Thank You!