Sunday, May 2, 2010

Ten Canoes

The 2006 movie Ten Canoes by Rolf de Heer is a mesmerizing look at the pre-European-contact culture of Australia and well worth viewing even if it didn't feature indigenous boats. A story-within-a-story within yet another one, they're all set in the Arafura Swamp in Arnham Land, in what is now the Northern Territory, on the northwestern shore of the Gulf of Carpentaria. Director de Heer's inspiration for the movie came from a 1936 photograph by anthropologist Donald Thomson, that showed 10 solo bark canoes being poled through long grass in the swamp.

The story was built around that image, but when he showed up there to film, seeking local craftspeople to make the props, and local residents -- all of them Australian Aborigines -- to fill all the movie's roles (none of whom had any acting experience), de Heer found that knowledge of the swamp's indigenous canoe had disappeared from the region. de Heer was able to recruit one individual with some bark canoe building experience from a neighboring district, but as his first canoe began to take shape, it was clear that its design was not that of the Arafura Swamp as photographed by Thomson. So combining the technical skills of the experienced builder (whose name was Pussycat, and who is pictured below) with Thomson's detailed drawings and photographs, de Heer was able to guide the process and build the ten canoes needed for the movie with probably a fairly high degree of accuracy. Certainly, if Thomson's book constitutes the only careful documentation, it might be impossible to come up with a more accurate reproduction, since native knowledge of the type vanished two or three generations ago.

I haven't seen Thomson's book (nor do I know its title), but I was able to make out the following details from the movie, which shows certain steps of the building process, and the DVD's "special feature" (far more interesting than most) that shows more of it.

Bark is removed from the standing tree (type unknown) by first stripping vertical fibers, then making a long vertical cut, and prying the bark from the trunk with long poles. The bark is far rougher and stiffer than birch: when it comes off the tree, there is no tendency for it to fold over. Instead, it retains its longitudinal shape, and it is carried as a cylinder to an area of shallow water, where it is submerged and allowed to soak.

After a time (duration unknown), it is removed from the water. It can now be unrolled to lie flat. It is flopped onto a low, live fire to soften further. It chars somewhat in the process.

Removed from the fire, it is folded in half lengthwise, but only at the two ends, the section amidships being allowed to sag open. The ends are held between pairs of vertical stakes which are lashed tightly together. The stern is left square, and it is sewn several inches inboard of the end with tree fibers -- perhaps the same ones that were stripped off the bark before it was removed from the tree?

The bow is cut down to a "ram bow" shape. Starting perhaps 2 to 3 feet inboard of the front end, the top "gunwale" edge of the bark is cut in a downward slope toward the front. This is also sewn with bark fibers. A simple stopper knot is tied at the end a bundle of fibers, then sewing proceeds in a simple in-and-out pattern. More fibrous material is shoved inside the seam, and this may serve as a kind of caulking.  Just aft of the stitching, the top edges of the bark are pushed outward and down.

One or two simple wooden poles are lashed across the boat amidships to hold the hull apart, and shorter ones ("stretchers") are set well below the sheer well into the ends to provide some width and buoyancy there. The ends of these "thwarts" bear directly against the inside of the bark. The midships thwarts are quite long, the result being that the boat takes on a substantial sheer, while midships it is very shallow -- just a couple inches of freeboard when the paddler sits amidships. The run is rather flat aft, and it rises well above the waterline forward, but I could not tell how the bottom was shaped thus. The leading point of the "ram bow" is thus well above the waterline, and this is supposed to allow the boat to pass more easily through the long grass that grows in the swamp's shallow waters. The design is unique to the Arafura Swamp.

The canoes are decidedly "primitive" -- i.e., of extremely simple construction. The stiff bark is itself the canoe's only structure. They have no gunwales, no ribs, no internal strengthening of any kind, other than the simple cross-pieces whose purpose is only to hold the sides apart.

In the film, actors propel the boats in swampy areas by poling from a standing position. In open water, they paddled, seated amidships, with a small one-handed paddle in each hand. Some of the actors paddled with both hands moving together, typically leaning their torsos forward for the "catch" and leaning back during the stroke. This looked strenuous. Other actors paddled the two hands alternately, maintaining a steady motion like swimming, and this looked much easier to maintain over long distances.

On the set-up screen of the DVD I rented from Netflix, the scene shown above was shown, in which the ten canoeists paddle for a couple minutes across a stretch of open water. I repeated this scene over and over, perhaps 15 or 20 times. Although it's just a movie, and its accuracy is dubious, it had an amazing, mezmerizing sense of authenticity -- it really felt like one was watching pre-contact indigenous canoeists on a hunting/gathering trip.

(All photos are from the movie's website.)

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