Ten Canoes & Cross-cultural collaboration

MV5BMTkzOTQ1NTA0OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzk3MTg0MQ@@._V1_SY317_CR2,0,214,317_Our class reading this week Remembering our ancestors: cross-cultural collaboration and the mediation of Aboriginal culture and history in Ten Canoes by Therese Davis gives a fascinating insight into the potential and pitfalls of artistic cross-cultural collaboration. I had seen the film in question Ten Canoes years ago and recall finding it entertaining and unlike any other film I’d seen featuring Aboriginal culture, however I was unaware of the extent to which the Yolngu people were involved in the films creation.

Davis essay reveals a complex picture of differing, and in many ways conflicting requirements in on screen representation. The conventions of modern western film making are revealed as having very different concerns than the desire for culturally accurate portrayal by Aboriginal peoples (Davis 2007, 7). The Ten Canoes director Rolf de Heer describes this challenge: ‘… they wanted to make something that was authentic to them, and mostly from their point of view… but I understood also that it had to work in a Western storytelling tradition (Davis 2007, 7).’

One area of discussion that stood out to me was the issue of casting. Davis tells us that the Yolngu people working on the film insisted that those cast in each role should have ‘proper kin relations in real life (Davis 2007, 10).’ The regular western film making practice would be to select actors based on appearance and talent, with the final decision being left to the director. In this film de Heer defers to the Yolngu tradition in allowing this process. In particular he casts an unlikely new actor Richard Birrinbirrin. However Birrinbirrin’s role, due mainly to his appearance, is a special comedic part (Davis 2007, 10), almost reminiscent of a type of joker. The approach to casting in Ten Canoes illustrates the application of two conflicting value systems to storytelling. That of the western recognition of appearance and talent, versus the Yolngu practice of connecting stories with their kin relations.

Richard Birrinbirrin’s role in the film reveals a semblance of collaboration and deference to Yolngu culture, however at a deeper level, de Heer, and the western film approach he represents, retains the ultimate authority. This one example leads me to question the extent to which cross-cultural collaboration can achieve true equality, while retaining coherence in form.


Davis, T. 2007.  Remembering our ancestors: cross-cultural collaboration and the mediation of Aboriginal culture and history in Ten Canoes (Rolf de Heer, 2006) in Studies in Australasian Cinema, v1 no.1, pp.5-14.

Image Source: IMDb


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