Cheap Time Travel
The calm, hypnotizing rhythms of a film like Hamaca Paraguaya are sometimes lost on critics and audiences alike at a festival like Cannes, where seemingly everyone is rushing to and fro, trying to cram five or six screenings — and maybe one or two parties as well — into what is still but a 24-hour day. For those willing to surrender themselves, however, the effects of such a movie can be akin to hopping in a time machine and suddenly traveling back to some long ago time and forgotten place. So it was that, in the course of a single day in Cannes, I not only visited rural 1930s Paraguay, but also the ancient Australian outback, the latter trip courtesy of Ten Canoes, which also screens in Un Certain Regard and is also something of a historic feat: the first feature-length movie to be produced in an indigenous Australian language.
Directed by the Dutch expatriate filmmaker Rolf de Heer, this sometimes bawdy (remember: "never trust a man with a small prick"), always beguiling work of imagination begins with an unnamed narrator (voiced by the great Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil) promising us: "I am going to tell you a story. It's not your story…it's my story…a story like you never seen before." And what follows hardly disappoints. A group of Aboriginal tribesman set out on an annual goose-hunting expedition, fashioning canoes from tree trunks and sleeping in makeshift camps perched high in trees (the better to avoid being eaten by crocodiles). Along the way, an elder member of the tribe, Minygululu, regales his restless young companion, Dayindi — who happens to covet one of Minygululu's three wives — with a cautionary tale, about another young man smitten by similar desires, the arrival of a mysterious stranger and the hard-gotten wisdom to be careful of what one wishes for. Then this story within the story within the story starts to unfold before our eyes.
If the moral of Ten Canoes is familiar, the getting there is anything but. To watch this movie (shot in breathtaking widescreen by cinematographer Ian Jones) is to enter into a whole new language of symbols and meaning, the likes of which I have rarely encountered in cinema outside of the African tribal films of Ousmane Sembene. And yet, as in Sembene, we are never lost, for as much as anything else, Ten Canoes is a celebration of the art of storytelling, and of the power of stories to transcend all barriers of space and time and language. This is a movie with sheer magic in it.