Ten Canoes

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Ten Canoes
Promotional movie poster for the film
Directed by
Written byRolf de Heer
Produced by
  • Rolf de Heer
  • Julie Ryan
StarringJamie Gulpilil
Narrated byDavid Gulpilil
CinematographyIan Jones
Edited byTania Nehme
Distributed byPalace Films and Cinemas
Release date
  • 29 June 2006 (2006-06-29)
Running time
92 minutes
Box officeA$3,511,649

Ten Canoes is a 2006 Australian historical drama/docudrama film directed by Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigirr and starring Crusoe Kurddal. The film is set in Arnhem Land in northern Australia, before Western influence, and tells the story of a group of ten men doing traditional hunting in canoes. A narrator tells the story, and the overall format is that of a moral tale.


The film is set in Arnhem Land, in a time separate of Western influence, and tells the story of a group of ten men in a traditional hunting context. The leader of the group, Minygululu, tells the young Dayindi (Jamie Gulpilil) a story about another young man even further back in time who, like Dayindi, coveted his elder brother's youngest wife. The sequences featuring Dayindi and the hunt are in black and white, while shots set in distant past are in colour. All protagonists speak in indigenous languages of the Yolŋu Matha language group, with subtitles. The film is narrated in English by David Gulpilil, although versions of the film without narration, and featuring narration in Yolŋu Matha, are also available.

Minygululu tells a story of the great warrior Ridjimiraril, who suspects a visiting stranger of kidnapping his second wife. In a case of mistaken identity, Ridjimiraril kills a member of a neighbouring tribe. To prevent all-out war, tribal laws dictate that the offending tribe allow the offender to be speared from a distance by individuals of the tribe of the slain man. The offender is allowed to be accompanied by a companion, and in this instance he takes his younger brother, Yeeralparil. Whenever one of the two is hit, the spear-throwers will stop, and justice will have been served. Ridjimiraril is hit and mortally wounded but survives long enough to return to his camp, where he is tended to by his eldest wife. When he knows he is dying he performs a ritual dance and once dead his hair is cut and his body is painted to enable the ancestral spirits to guide him to the next world.

The elder brother's kidnapped second wife then finds her way back to the camp. She reveals that she had been kidnapped by a different tribe, much farther away and had taken this long to return. She mourns her lost husband, who had attacked the wrong tribe, though now she and the elder wife take his younger brother as their new husband. The younger brother, who was only interested in the youngest of the three wives, now has to care for all of them, and satisfying their many demands is clearly going to be much more than he wished.

Minygululu tells this story in the hope that Dayindi learns of the added responsibilities of a husband and elder statesman in the tribe, and in the end we see Dayindi withdrawing from his pursuit of Minygululu's young wife.


The actors and actresses, mostly from Ramingining in East Arnhem Land, speak various dialects of the Yolngu Matha language family. Crusoe Kurddal is from Maningrida and speaks Kuninjku.[citation needed]

  • Crusoe Kurddal – Ridjimiraril
  • Jamie Gulpilil – Dayindi/Yeeralparil
  • Richard Birrinbirrin – Birrinbirrin
  • Peter Minygululu – Minygululu
  • Frances Djulibing – Nowalingu
  • David Gulpilil – The Storyteller
  • Sonia Djarrabalminym – Banalandju
  • Cassandra Malangarri Baker – Munandjarra
  • Philip Gudthaykudthay (of Bula'Bula Arts[1]) – The Sorcerer
  • Peter Djigirr – Canoeist/The Victim/Warrior
  • Michael Dawu – Canoeist/The Stranger
  • Bobby Bunungurr – Canoeist/Uncle
  • Johnny Buniyira – Canoeist/Warrior
  • Gil Birmingham – Canoeist/Warrior
  • Steven Wilinydjanu Maliburr – Canoeist/Warrior


The title of the film arose from discussions between de Heer and David Gulpilil about a photograph of ten canoeists poling across the Arafura Swamp, taken by anthropologist Donald Thomson[2] in 1936.[3]

It is the first ever movie entirely filmed in Australian Aboriginal languages.[citation needed] The film is partly in colour and partly in black and white, in docudrama style largely with a narrator explaining the story.


Release and reception[edit]

Ten Canoes was released on 29 June 2006.[citation needed] At the end of 2006, the film stood as one of the highest grossing Australian films of that year. By October it had made just over $3,000,000 from a budget of $2,200,000.[citation needed]

Ten Canoes grossed A$3,511,649 at the box office in Australia.[4]


Ten Canoes won the Un Certain Regard Special Jury Prize at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival.[5] De Heer rejected claims he is a white director making an Indigenous story: "People talk about, what is a white director doing making an Indigenous story? They're telling the story, largely, and I'm the mechanism by which they can."[6] Ten Canoes was screened at the Sydney Film Festival in June 2006 and was released nationally on 29 June 2006.

In October 2006 Ten Canoes was chosen as Australia's official entry into the Best Foreign Language Film category for the 2007 Academy Awards, thus becoming the third Australian film to be considered for the award (following Floating Life in 1996 and La Spagnola in 2001).[citation needed]

Ten Canoes was nominated for seven Australian Film Institute (AFI) Awards, of which it won six. The movie won the awards for Best Picture (Julie Ryan, Rolf de Heer producers), Best Director (Rolf de Heer and Peter Djigirr), Best Screenplay - Original (Rolf de Heer), Best Cinematography (Ian Jones), Best Editing (Tania Nehme), and Best Sound (James Currie, Tom Heuzenroeder, Michael Bakaloff, and Rory McGregor). It was also nominated for Best Production Design (Beverly Freeman).[citation needed]

It won three awards from the Film Critics Circle of Australia: Best Film, Best Editing (Tania Nehme), and Best Cinematography (Ian Jones). (The latter award was a tie with David Williamson's work on Jindabyne.) The film was also nominated for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. The Balanda and the Bark Canoes, a documentary that aired on Australian network SBS and which detailed de Heer's experiences making the film, won Best Australian Short Documentary for de Heer, Tania Nehme, and Molly Reynolds. The documentary explores the interplay between cultures in a film project immersing a balanda (white man) into the intricacies of kinship systems impacting the casting of the film as well as giving some voice to the inner conflicts of indigenous peoples today caught between the world of their heritage and that of modern life. This aspect has been explored by academic D. Bruno Starrs with regard to the "authentic Aboriginal voice".[7]

The film received the Grand Prix for Best Film at Film Fest Gent in 2006.[citation needed]

The film ranked #72 in Empire magazine's "The 100 Best Films of World Cinema" in 2010.[8]


Award Category Subject Result
AACTA Awards
(2006 AFI Awards)
Best Film Julie Ryan, Rolf de Heer Won
Best Direction Peter Djigirr, Rolf de Heer Won
Best Original Screenplay Rolf de Heer Won
Best Cinematography Ian Jones Won
Best Editing Tania Nehme Won
Best Sound Michael Bakaloff, James Currie, Tom Heuzenroeder, Rory McGregor Won
Best Production Design Beverley Freeman Nominated
Cannes Film Festival Un Certain Regard - Special Jury Prize Rolf de Heer Won
FCCA Awards Best Film Won
Julie Ryan Won
Best Director Peter Djigirr Nominated
Rolf de Heer Nominated
Best Original Screenplay Nominated
Best Editing Tania Nehme Won
Best Cinematography Ian Jones Won
Film Fest Gent Grand Prix Peter Djigirr Won
Rolf de Heer Won
Inside Film Awards Best Feature Film Julie Ryan Nominated
Rolf de Heer Nominated
Best Director Won
Peter Djigirr Won
Best Script Rolf de Heer Nominated
Best Actor Crusoe Kurddal Won
Best Cinematography Ian Jones Won
Best Sound Michael Bakaloff Won
James Currie Won
Tom Heuzenroeder Won
Rory McGregor Won
Mar del Plata International Film Festival Best Film Rolf de Heer Nominated
Peter Djigirr Nominated
NatFilm Festival Audience Award Won
Rolf de Heer Won
Satellite Award Best Foreign Language Film Nominated

Twelve Canoes[edit]

After Ten Canoes sparked worldwide interest in Yolngu culture, a spin-off educational project known as Twelve Canoes was born, in collaboration with the people at Ramingining. A website, videos and study guide were created, focussing on twelve key subjects.[9][10] The film of the twelve segments was shown on SBS TV in Australia, and has been available online.[11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Ramingining art centre". Bula'Bula Arts. 20 January 2023. Retrieved 26 August 2023.
  2. ^ Thomson, Donald (2006). Nicolas Peterson (ed.). Donald Thomson in Arnhem Land (Reprint ed.). Melbourne: Miegunyah Press. p. 249 p. ISBN 0-522-85205-X.
  3. ^ Gibson, Joel (8 April 2007). "Reclaiming the past can be personal". The Sydney Morning Herald. p. 2. Retrieved 9 April 2007.
  4. ^ "Film Victoria - Australian Films at the Australian Box Office" (PDF).
  5. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Ten Canoes". festival-cannes.com. Retrieved 16 December 2009.
  6. ^ article "Keeping Time with Rolf", by Michael Fitzgerald, in Time magazine, 13 March 2006
  7. ^ Starrs, D. Bruno. "The authentic Aboriginal voice in Rolf de Heer's 'Ten Canoes'", 'Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture', 7.3, 2007. http://reconstruction.eserver.org/Issues/073/starrs.shtml
  8. ^ "The 100 Best Films of World Cinema – 72. Ten Canoes". Empire.
  9. ^ Lewis, Robert. Twelve Canoes: A Study Guide (PDF). Atom, Screen Australia, Australian Government.
  10. ^ "Twelve Canoes". Twelve Canoes. Retrieved 14 February 2020.
  11. ^ "Twelve Canoes". Programs. 22 June 2019. Retrieved 14 February 2020.

External links[edit]