The Balanda and the Bark Canoes [subtitled in part]

The Balanda and the Bark Canoes

The Balanda and the Bark Canoes is a 52-minute short about the making of the film Ten Canoes. Balanda is an Aborigine word for a white man (though in doing a little research online I discovered that it’s actually a Malay term that was imported into Australia and adopted into some Aborigine languages).

Ten Canoes (which I have not seen) is an Australian movie with an Aborigine cast from Arnhem Land in the extreme north of Australia. It is set in the past, before the arrival of Europeans. Most of it is actually a story within a story, told about ancestors who lived even earlier.

The director of Ten Canoes is Rolf de Heer, a white man. The Balanda and the Bark Canoes tells the story of his sometimes rewarding, sometimes frustrating work with local Aborigines to make Ten Canoes. The story is from de Heer’s perspective, and includes his narration.

De Heer and his people did a great deal of research on Aborigine culture in order to make Ten Canoes as authentic as possible. They relied especially heavily on thousands of photographs taken by anthropologist Donald Thomson in Arnhem Land in the 1930s, when the local Aborigine culture had not yet been drastically changed by contact with Europeans.

Actually even today the Aborigines in the area probably seem primitive and native to outsiders. But really they have moved considerably toward the dominant Western culture. Most of the old ways have been abandoned. Indeed, they’ve mostly been forgotten. De Heer consistently knows more about their traditional culture than they do. They take considerable interest in the Thomson photos he shares with them, since much of what the photos depict is new to them.

They still retain a certain amount of pride in their culture though, and do not always go along comfortably with this white man’s explaining it to them. He is sensitive to this, welcomes their feedback, and tries to avoid disrespecting them.

But there are still bumps in the road in their relationship, of various levels of importance. Some of that stems from the egos of some of the elders, who can get prickly and even abandon the project for reasons that are not always clear to an outsider like de Heer.

There are also conceptual issues. The Aborigines are fuzzy on the very concept of fiction, and of their being actors portraying characters other than themselves. One of the elders, for instance, refuses to play a married character unless all of his wives in the story are played by women that would be eligible to marry him in real life according to the local Aborigine rules about marriage. This is a bigger problem than it sounds, because those rules are so arcane and convoluted that the overwhelming majority of even local Aborigine women are ineligible to marry him.

The Aborigine actors also struggle mightily with the idea of filming things out of sequence. It is comparable to trying to explain editing and filmmaking basics to very young children.

I mostly respect what de Heer does here, and I recognize that he’s genuinely trying to assist the Aborigine people in preserving the memories of their culture on film and informing the world about their culture. But there’s still a feeling of paternalism about the project at times.

I wish it could have been more the Aborigines’ film, where de Heer’s role was that of an advisor. As it is, Ten Canoes is his movie. Certainly the Aborigines have input into it, but he has creative control. As he talks about in the narration, he’s the one who alters the story as they go along, deciding when one character needs to be emphasized or deemphasized, when the mood needs to be lightened with a little humor, etc. I’d like to have seen the Aborigines themselves come up with a story and be the ones to adjust it along the way, while receiving and using his input, advice, and technical expertise to the extent they choose to.

Maybe there would have been no way to do it like that. Maybe there were no local Aborigines with the filmmaking skills, resources, and initiative to make a feature-length film about their culture, even with his assistance as a consultant. Maybe it was either have de Heer call the shots and make the film or nothing.

I found The Balanda and the Bark Canoes mildly interesting, but probably not above an average short documentary you might see on the Discovery Channel or something like that.

Probably its greatest value in my eyes is as a spur to reflect on issues of cultures changing, dominating each other, dying out, etc. Underlying a film like this is the assumption that it’s a bad thing that the traditional Aborigine culture has been pressured and devalued sufficiently over the course of the time it has conflicted with Western culture that by now most of the Aborigine people themselves have a vague at best grasp of their traditions.

But is that really so bad? Why or why not?

I think cultures and the various aspects of cultures should be judged on their merits. (I’m not a cultural relativist, and in fact consider cultural relativism incoherent, so I’m unconcerned with the retort that it’s somehow impossible to judge such things on their merits because they’re all inherently and unavoidably equal in merit, or because value terms don’t apply to them at all, or whatever.)

It has been extremely common for cultures to embrace such values as the subordination of women, adherence to supernaturalism and religions with a vicious dictatorial God at the top that render them resistant to the scientific method and getting along with their neighbors, a conviction that frequent war is a necessary if not noble way to settle differences, etc. Eliminating or changing traditions and habits like those doesn’t bother me at all. I think it constitutes progress.

“But it’s our culture to cut out the clitoris of a female infant!” may well be true in some parts of the world, but so what? That’s no defense of such a practice (though it’s often treated as if it were.)

Having said that, it doesn’t follow that I’m in favor of the spread of the Western culture of extreme materialism and American TV shows, movies, music, etc., and the way it crowds out everything else, weakening if not eliminating indigenous cultures as the younger generations rush to embrace iPhones, fundamentalist Christianity, or Nicky Minaj. Because while I believe that cultures should be judged on their merits, I also believe several other things that bear on any assessment of cultural change or the dying out of a given culture. To wit:

One, when cultures are judged on their merits, there are plenty of stupid or immoral aspects not only of traditional indigenous cultures but of modern Western culture. Maybe it’s tragic that Aborigine culture is dying because it’s a culture that got a lot more right than what is dominating and replacing it. Or maybe not.

Two, I oppose changing a culture through violence. And I’m using “violence” in a broad, Gandhian sense that goes beyond direct physical coercion such as war. It’s also violent in a broad sense if change comes about as a result of deception and exploitation and such. Violence has always been a huge part of how one culture comes to dominate another, and I think that’s a bad thing. It’s not like dominant cultures win fair competitions.

Three, I think there’s a certain amount of value in cultural diversity in and of itself, both on the sort of aesthetic grounds that it makes the world a more interesting place, but also on the same kind of pragmatic grounds that renders species diversity ecologically valuable.

Diverse cultures trying all different kinds of ways of life, and nonviolently sharing and communicating with each other along the way, is a good way for us all to learn and grow. Better and more promising, certainly, than if everything was the same all over the world.

So in judging a given case, like whether we should shed a tear over the fading of Aborigine culture in favor of the dominant ideology of Western capitalism, I think you have to look at many factors rather than just assume that it’s always some sort of a tragedy when people no longer live and believe the way their ancestors in the same part of the world did hundreds or thousands of years ago.