Skip to content

Ethnography, Community, and Collaboration in Ten Canoes – Jennifer Malkowski

2012 April 19
by Shared by Steve Rust

As part of an ongoing effort to expand the scope and scale of ecomedia studies, we’ve asked a number of folks from the Society for Cinema and Media Studies to post abstracts of their conference papers or send something to us to post.  Today’s entry is from Jennifer Malkowski, Post-doctoral Fellow in Film and New Media at Smith College, who has graciously submitted the abstract for her paper…


“It’s Not Your Story”: Ethnography, Community, and Collaboration in Ten Canoes

Submission for 2012 SCMS Panel: Cinema and Community, Cinema as Community

This paper examines the film Ten Canoes and its production process as complex sites of cross-cultural collaboration and community building through filmmaking. “Australia’s most ambitious and most expensive cross-cultural film project to date,” Ten Canoes emerged from an extensive 2006 collaboration between established, white Australian director Rolf de Heer and the Indigenous Australian community of Ramingining (populated by the Yolngu and located in Arnhem Land). Using the well-funded production as an opportunity for cultural renewal and the reclaiming of nearly-lost traditions, the people of Ramingining collectively fought to make the film in “the proper way,” subordinating Western production practices to Yolngu culture. In casting, for example, the requirements of local kinship laws took precedence over considerations like physical appearances or acting talent.

In storytelling, making traditional canoes, or this new venture of making a film, what seems most important to the Yolngu is how things are done, process – in contrast to the values of Western cinema, where the filmic product is the enduring commodity (artistically and financially). This cultural imperative of Ramingining’s community is thematized in the film, through self-reflexive explorations of process in canoe-building, ritual dance, and the telling of Ten Canoes’ story itself – presided over by a playfully antagonistic Yolngu narrator.

Shaped by the Ramingining community, the form of Ten Canoes resists the narrative conventions of mainstream, Western cinema, instead celebrating the slowly-paced and multi-layered local style of Yolngu storytelling – even at the risk of alienating national and international audiences who represent the film’s potential for profit and critical acclaim.Although burdened by some of the problems common to collaborations between people from disparate and unequal social positions, Ten Canoes showcases an intricate negotiation between the process-oriented storytelling of the Yolngu and the product-oriented traditions of Western cinema industries, offering an instructive case of collaborative and community-based filmmaking.

Bio: Jennifer Malkowski received her Ph.D. in Film and Media this May from the University of California, Berkeley and has just started a two-year postdoctoral fellowship at Smith College. Her dissertation, “‘Dying in Full Detail’: Mortality and Duration in Digital Documentary,” focuses on documenting death, how the development of video and digital technologies has altered that practice, and how the temporalities of death and digital media are mutually informing. Her work has been published in Film Quarterly and the anthology Queers in American Popular Culture.

One Response leave one →
  1. smonani permalink
    April 25, 2012

    Jennifer, thanks for sharing this abstract. With my own interests in indigenous film and media, I am sorry to have missed your presentation at SCMS. Fourth Cinema is thriving and its imperatives and narratives are definitely distinct from those of First Cinema as Ten Canoes (and your analysis of it) suggests.

Leave a Reply

Note: You can use basic XHTML in your comments. Your email address will never be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS