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Synopsis This paper seeks to create discussion around the film Ten Canoes (2006) and other films representing Indigenous Australians in order to explore the tension that exists between local and global audiences and filmmaking and the social, political and cultural discourses within which these interact, both reflecting and re-‐shaping these. Process Report This research task allowed me to learn more about the representation of Aboriginal people through the media and the impact this may have on their realities, the way this both contributes to and reflects broader social, cultural and political movements of the time. This allowed me to understand the importance of firmly placing media forms within their context in order to understand how and why they have the qualities they do and how these affect us, the audience. It was exciting to learn about the origins of the film and to understand how these also impact on the final product, while this also allowed me to contextualise the film more accurately. It was difficult to find any unbiased material relating to the portrayal of Indigenous Australians and this reflects the passionate and close to home nature of these issues. From this project I learnt the importance of history and culture in our perceptual process and the vast, the way these work to combine layers from which we derive meaning, and the vastly different responses that may be experienced depending on individual as well as collective experience. For further research it would be interesting to take these elements that have been examined within Ten Canoes and compare them to other films in a more in-‐depth way to increase understanding and discussion of how these operate on these different cultural levels.
Tension between local and global culture in contemporary Australian film representing Indigenous Australians Films representing Aboriginal people are often used to highlight the social, cultural and health-‐related issues experienced by this cultural group and to position them within broader Australian history and culture. This discussion will be focusing on Rolf De Heer’s Ten Canoes (2006), in which the re-‐mediation of this culture into film represents a struggle between local, national and global styles of narrative and filmmaking. In order to understand how these elements contribute to the generation of meaning and the film’s role in broader social, cultural and political discourses we may investigate the filmic choices that have been made and how these are reflected in the specific elements of the film. Through a process of decoding and deconstruction we may come to understand that “the reader is as important as the writer in the generation of meaning” (Hall, 1997, p.33) and that we actively interpret a matrix of different elements according to cultural and individual qualities as part of the “media matrix” (Dallow, 2010). Global influence on ‘national’ films Independent films attempt to touch more specifically on the country or group’s own culture and unique human experience, a movement against the claimed ‘universal’, but typically American, values and ideas that are seen within Hollywood films. This is evident in the Indigenous film Ten Canoes (2006), which acts to subvert traditional narrative and camera techniques in order to break this convention, while it should also be noted that this ‘global filmmaking’ is still a prevalent influence on this film as it interacts as part of a global web of media discourses. As Hedetoft (2000) notes, “contemporary cinema... is increasingly embedded in discourses of globalisation... its discrete manifestations are full of paradox and tension” (p.278). Ten Canoes (2006) won the People’s Choice Award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2006 and was created for this type of global audience and as such, its elements reflect these motives to be different and culturally specific, while it also aims to be appealing and understandable to a global audience. The motivations behind the techniques chosen for the film can be related to the notion of the image as being a means of representation of national identity, much in the same way as the more recent film Australia (2008), however, this film takes on a typically Hollywood epic approach and can be placed at the opposite end of the scale to Ten Canoes’ (2006) quiet and simple story. Ten Canoes (2006) is created entirely in Yolgnu, the native language of the featured Ramining people, with English subtitles and voice-‐over narration translating this to the audience. The use of language is integral to our approach towards and understanding of the film as language is a dominant element of cultural discourses and our main means of expression. By using this native language there is a sense of authenticity, of ‘truth’, that is being created through the remediation of this unknown language, whereby David Gupilil as the narrator and a recognizable actor acts as the audience’s portal to the
Ramining people. The film was also created entirely in two local native languages and if we were to extend our discussion to include these we may consider a dynamic range of local cultural levels and approaches to interpretation. Language is also integral to broader understandings of cultural preservation as English becomes the ‘global language’ in international business and is increasingly taught in overseas schools as part of the process of globalisation. Representing a national ‘truth’ Ten Canoes can be viewed as an example of how “much of the media is about creating the illusion of being a direct channel to ‘the real world’, of presence” (Dallow, 2010). Though not explicitly stated, the film claims to portray a ‘true’ depiction of Aboriginal people much in the same way documentary does. In an early sequence a still long shot in black and white allows us to watch the naked Aboriginal men walk past in single file in the distance. The audience is made to feel part of the environment, the filmmaker is aware of the pervasive power of the camera and distances viewer from subject as if to recreate the sensation of observation, a powerfully persuasive technique. Throughout the film the narrator introduces us to each of the characters and still close-‐up shots are used in this case, while the subject does not talk they smile and laugh along to the words of the narrator as though being interviewed on a news channel or documentary special. We are able to interpret these techniques as representing the real, the close connection we tend to associate between representation and reality, because of our familiarity with these discourses of news and documentary techniques and the way that we have organised and positioned these as part of our schema from which we interpret and assign meaning. In order to further understand the intentions of the filmmaker we may investigate the origins of the film Ten Canoes (2006) and the way that this was created based on a photograph taken by a 1930s anthropologist, David Thomson. This image of ten canoeists was used as the basis for the narrative, as well as the framing and colour techniques used, while the people of Ramining, whose cultural origins are in this area, contributed to the development of the narrative, as well as of the setting and props. While this may cause us to view this film as a true and authentic depiction and indeed the immersion of the audience in the narrative shows a lack of reflexivity, a demonstration of how “fish are the last to recognise water” (Dallow, 2010), we must remember that it is actually a framed and selected re-‐presentation of reality. While audiences “don’t read images so much as they read into them” (Lubin,2003,p.136), we must acknowledge the sources and motives behind the images with which we are presented and how these both reflect and re-‐shape broader discourses. This motive to represent and highlight the ‘truth’ of history is evident in most films representing Aboriginal people, including Harry’s War (1999), which was created by an Aboriginal filmmaker and shows the struggle of an individual to gain equality for his people through his participation in war. It is
important also to note that in relation to each of these films, “culture can only appear on screen in a mediated form” (Venicilion, 2010) and this virtualisation of the image actually acts to further distance us from reality. Remediation: from photograph to film The first level of codification and modification occurs when we look at this photograph from which Ten Canoes was created. As Messaris (1997) notes, photographs “can elicit emotions by simulating the appearance of a real person or event” (p.vii) and this sentimentality and notion of preservation of history is the driving force that is carried throughout the remediation of this already remediated image into the film. It should also be noted that “a paradox of photographic images is that their strongly iconic and indexical qualities give them particular kinds of symbolic power” (Dallow, 2010) and it is this symbolic power that is carried into the film and from which new ideas and meanings are generated, relevant to the current context and shared, as well as individual, cultural understandings. This also demonstrates how “much of the meaning potential in visual communication comes from metaphorical association” (Machin, 2009, p.186) and this is evident not only in the construction of films but also in our deconstruction of their elements. Thomson’s Photograph of Ten Canoeists. Source: Thorner (2006). De Heer’s Recreation in Ten Canoes. Source: Ten Canoes (2006) In response to the remediation of this photograph into film, the Yolngu people did not want to portray any conflict in their story, an example of how personal motives and perception of the creator will influence the version of ‘truth’ that we receive. In response to this request, however, de Heer acknowledges that conflict is a key element in film, a convention set by Hollywood filmmaking, and this becomes a key part of the film’s narrative. He describes himself as the mediator between the Ramining people and a global audience and this creates subtle tension between the Aboriginal, national and global elements and motives of the film.
Film as a political tool The film finds it place in a long history of media portrayals of Indigenous Australians and its elements reflect these broader historical and political discourses. The film has been acclaimed by critics for its absence of European influence or direct political comment or depiction but it is this very absence, the violation of expectation by the audience, which creates its presence. We must acknowledge that this film does not operate within its own detached space but within a context, a web of discourses that make up a “media matrix” (Dallow, 2010). As one critic notes, “if you expected a serious portrayal of Aboriginal issues that expectation is deflated with a fart” (Conor, 2006) and this demonstrates how a “spectator comes prepared to make sense of a narrative film” (Bordwell & Thompson, 1993, p.90) and the role this has in perception, particularly when expectations are not met. We can compare this approach by the filmmaker to films such as Rabbit Proof Fence (2002) in which heightened dramatic scenes such as the abduction scene are contrasted with still shots and intense close-‐ups that give this element of conflict a heavy emotional grounding for the actively interpreting audience. Films such as this one and The Tracker (2002) attempt to show this oppression and inequality directly and are the type of images society has become accustomed to seeing in relation to Aboriginal culture and history. It is this discourse of Aboriginal portrayal in media that makes Ten Canoes (2006) so effective in its attempt to capture the audience. Abduction scene in Rabbit Proof Fence (2002). Source: IMDB (2010). This film is a response to the broader social, cultural and political discourses that are taking part and is used to highlight these and contribute to this discussion due to its search for an international audience. In 2005 a report was released by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, stating that severe inequality remained for the Aboriginal people and that reconciliation was required. It is in response to broader issues such as these that we see films and other artistic works highlighting these issues and attempting to show a perspective, to support or go against the dominant thought of the time, in order to have currency in the current media context. It can also be noted that “the portrayal of
Indigenous issues go hand in hand with real world measures to achieve reconciliation” (Australian Government, 2008). In response to these ideas de Heer is quoted as saying that “most people are so ignorant about this society and its complexities, and there are so many faulty judgements made about how Aboriginal people live” and this reflects the motivations of the filmmaker to represent a different perception of Aboriginal people in order to create national and global reverberations. Over the years much research has also been conducted into the portrayal of Aboriginal people in the media and their negative portrayal as either a threat to society or victims of society (Woorama, 2007). It is the presence of this type of information and the emphasis placed on it within the media sphere that may influence the type of artistic work that is created. As the voice-‐of-‐narration sets up the context of the film’s narrative, part of its intentions are subtly highlighted, “Its a good story but you got to listen ey. Maybe youre like Dayindi, maybe the story will teach you how to live proper way." The film is designed to educate, to encourage a greater sense of respect and understanding towards the Aboriginal people. The film can be also interpreted as a movement towards freedom of expression, using this media form to give the Yolngu people a voice, allowing them to mark a place in our national culture at a time when Aboriginal people were also beginning to be recognised as respected members of Australian society in other media as the Government worked publicly towards some form of reconciliation. When looking at the existence of this film within the media space we can look also to how it has been used and adapted by others, meaning assigned to it and its meaning perhaps altered to meet the motives of other groups, creating a multimodal narrative about these people. This film has been adopted by government institutions as an example of Indigenous Australian history and the growing acceptance and awareness of Aboriginal people within Australian society. Elements of the film have been decoded and re-‐presented by these groups, representing a continuous process of codification and modification that occurs within media. The role of the narrator In order to explore these themes we may focus in on one element of the film’s construction in particular, the use of voice-‐over narration by David Gulpilil as the key technique by which the audience is told the story. Within this element of the film there are several different layers and techniques, which need to be examined in order to understand how the construction of this narrative by the filmmaker is re-‐presenting historical ‘reality’ and the role of these in broader social, cultural and political discourses.
The first element to examine is the actor David Gulpilil himself, where in order to understand how audiences come into meaning with the text we must also recognise the distinct set of films and media presence associated with this actor, the meta-‐narrative that exists and intertwines itself as part of the film. While the rest of the actors in the film are unknown, Gulpilil as the narrator and the use of his son Jamie as the main character and subject for all promotional material reflects the commoditisation of images, where an image of an identifiable actor is considered of more value and sets up a particular acceptance and expectation by the audience. Gulpilil achieved international recognition in films such as The Tracker (2002) and Rabbit Proof Fence (2002) in which his character was at the mercy of white people, oppressed and burdened, though he remained wise and insightful. It is with this positioning that we listen to his voice as he takes us on this ‘new’ journey in Ten Canoes (2006). Gulpilil in The Tracker (2002). Source: IMDB (2010) Gulpilil in Rabbit Proof Fence (2002). Source: IMDB (2010) By contrast, the lack of existing narratives for the other ‘actors’ is essential to this film as it attempts to bring forth something new and personal, or close-‐to-‐home for the Aboriginal people who live in this area, the emphasis here is on the unknown and this is essential to the interpretation of the film. The filmmaker attempts to create a balance between the familiar and the unknown, between global, national and Aboriginal culture. Another element to examine is the way that the scripted narration is designed to take the viewer on a journey and speaks directly to the audience, “I am going to tell you a story”, pulling us into this filmic world and narrative. Western influences are acknowledged and the film is ultimately created for a broader Western audience, “Once upon a time...” the narrator teases, it is an acknowledgement of our discourses of storytelling, positioning us to feel as though we are about to interpret something very different to the Hollywood narratives we are used to. The film uses this technique to create this distinction as part of its motives as an independent film, its attempt to stand in a different field of filmmaking and demonstrating how films “tell us about current ideologies of media culture and consumer society” (Dallow, 2010).
On a final note, we may acknowledge that the media are central “to our capacity to create and sustain order in our daily lives and for our capacity to find and position ourselves within that order” (Silverstone, 1999, p.114), in this way acting to shape our perceptions of the world and our identity within it. Ten Canoes (2006) attempts to re-‐shape the perceptions of Australian Aboriginal people nationally as well as internationally, to counteract their negative portrayal in the media. Speaking on the film Harry’s War (2000), Romaine Moreton (2000) notes, “When you have art you have voice, when you have voice you have freedom, with freedom of course comes responsibility” and these are the factors the filmmaker must balance in relation to both national and global processes of understanding, acceptance and identity. In conclusion, films operate within a matrix of social, cultural and political discourses and these are often reflected in the filmic choices made and the specific elements of the film from which the narrative is told. In films that portray specific cultural groups and attempt to go against traditional global Hollywood cinema, tension is created between the interaction of these cultural and filmic forms, where “the paradox is that for a cinema to be nationally popular it must also be international in scope” (Hedetoft, 2000, p.279). Films such as Ten Canoes (2006) allow us to examine the interaction of these cultural elements through their portrayal within these films, while also allowing us to contextualise this with links to specific discourses connected to both current and past contexts.
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