Printer Friendly

Critical historiography in Atanarjuat The Fast Runner and Ten Canoes.

Two recent 'Fourth World' films, the Canadian-Inuit Atanarjuat The East Runner (2000, dir. Zacharias Kunuk) (1) and the Australian-Yolngu Ten Canoes (2006, dir. de Heer/Djigirr), (2) locate their stories in a pre-European timeframe that perhaps inevitably borrows from the familiar representational framework of traditional ethnography. More directly, both films happen to draw aesthetic and narrative conventions quite explicitly from, respectively, Robert Flaherty's Nanook of the North (1922) and the photographs of Donald Thomson, both exceptionally influential instances of 1920-30s ethnography. (3) Accordingly, at first glance these films appear to reproduce the very power relations that seem most damaging to the possibility of a self-directed Fourth World cinema. (4) The films themselves controvert this expectation through a number of sophisticated aesthetic strategies. Thus, although the two films differ quite profoundly at the aesthetic level, they reveal in their common aesthetic strategies a shared historiographical attitude that is revealing of new potentials, charted by both films, in indigenous cinema as such. I wish to suggest that these commonalities reflect in surprising but ultimately very telling ways key theoretical insights made by Walter Benjamin in the late 1930s. More precisely, the significant connections emerge around the sharing of a cultural technology that functions very differently according to whether it is engaged esoterically or exoterically--by members of the communities represented in the films or by others.

If traditional ethnography is concerned above all with the attempt to explain and demystify a cultural 'other' through the communication of technological, religious and cultural particularities, it nevertheless engages a metaphorical story-telling mode, replete with symbolic associations, romantic idealisations and the projection of colonial fantasies. I call characters represented in this mode metaphorical rather than metonymic because they are conceptually at a remove from indigenous people still living. This form of disassociation is concurrent with another: a fundamental separation between observer and observed. (5) Postcolonial critics, however, have long since revealed the ubiquity of colonialist representational strategies in depictions of indigeneity. In what is now a well known articulation, Homi Bhabha contends that representations of 'the other' are more defined by the colonist or settler's self-interested projections than actual indigeneity--and so the familiar literary and cinematic form of the indigene is often simply a narcissistic, mirror image of the coloniser/settler, the settler's 'less than one and double'. (6)

A number of critics have pointed out the tropes used to qualify this self-image, including such familiar devices as the disappearing Indian (inscribing cultural degeneracy as the natural inverse of progress) and the timelessness of a pre-settler past (inscribing authenticity in an impossible ideal). (7) I mention these genre conventions both to suggest the difficulty of deploying uncircumscribed notions of traditional indigeneity and to draw attention to the metaphoric nature of these colonialist projections. The individual indigene stands for general challenges to settler authenticity, or uncanny psychic threats (as in the familiar image of the indigenous ghost), or at times as a proxy settler, with an emphasis in each case on breaking the contiguity of the literary indigene and real, contemporary indigenous communities. Metonymic representations pose no such disjoint: the indigenous community is imagined to extend from tradition through modernity, as is the case in both these films. As Shari Huhndorf explores in a recent article on Atanarjuat (an analysis that is also suggestive for Ten Canoes), the visual explanation of traditional technology and the depiction of the Canadian arctic's occupation and use are just two of the more immediate political uses made of the films, furthering the development of cultural unity (in the sense of promoting ties among the members of the community and the sense of a greater connection to the past) and landrights campaigns.

Yet Atanarjuat and Ten Canoes are striking in that both films have direct textual links with major ethnographic, colonialist representations of their respective indigenous cultures. Although celebrated, significant moments for Inuit and Yolngu cinematic self-representation, indeed widely received instances of Fourth World film as such, Atanarjuat and Ten Canoes seem to duplicate the very colonialist representational frameworks that have been the hallmarks of Bhabha's colonial 'doubling'. In particular, by developing a discourse of timelessness and purity, they are perhaps most readily interpreted as implicitly supporting colonial power relations. That the films' target audiences are split along several binary paradigms, including local and (inter-)national, settler and indigene, and indeed local indigeneity and indigeneity as such, only further complicates analyses of what these films communicate.

However, in a variety of ways, including the performative nature of constructing the props, the apprenticeship opportunities of the community-based filmmaking process, and the pedagogical nature of story-telling itself, connections may be traced between events in the films and contemporary issues facing the Inuit people of Igloolik and the Yolngu people of the Arafura swamp area, suggesting a metonymic rather than metaphorical enterprise. So while both films draw significantly from colonialist ethnographic sources, most obviously Nanook of the North and Thomson's photographs of Arnhem Land, they are both explicitly concerned with forging a link with the past that transforms the pedantic, observer-oriented dynamics of these source materials into a culturally productive form with a very different educational dynamic.

By reading these films from a settler perspective, that is, exoterically, I will not seek to demonstrate how Atanarjuat and Ten Canoes engage their local communities and develop, sustain and reinvigorate local culture. Rather, I attempt more simply to explore how both films consciously re-present key aspects of their ethnographic sources (Nanook of the North and the Thomson photographs) and--by undermining genre expectations, by forging a link from past to present, and by establishing esoteric or community-directed narratives alongside exoteric or general commentary--how they reposition the paradigms of observer and observed while also reclaiming circumscribed indigenous identities. The goal of this analysis will be to identify not only the historiographical and social critical enterprises of these two films so apparently bound by colonialist genres, but also to locate what aspects of the films suggest a commonality between them not only as similarly deployed discourses, but as instances of indigenous cinema as such.

Particularly in the influences of Nanook of the North and the Thomson photographs, the socio-political significance of these films seems tied to historiographical concerns, themselves inextricable from genre. Crucially, these films connect not to history as conventionally understood, nor to the history of the 1920s and 1930s that is indeed documented by Flaherty and Thomson, but rather to the vague, timeless past implied in depictions of traditional, pure and pre-contact indigeneity. Walter Benjamin's well-known 'History' theses equate history and culture with conquest in a manner conspicuously relevant to settler-indigene theorising and indicate a practical significance to Kunuk and de Heer's strategy. Benjamin notes:
 Whoever has emerged victorious participates to this day
 in the triumphal procession in which the present rulers
 step over those who are lying prostrate. According to
 traditional practices, the spoils are carried in the
 procession.... There is no document of culture which
 is not at the same time a document of barbarism. And
 just as such a document is not free of barbarism, so
 barbarism taints the manner in which it was transmitted
 from one hand to another. A historical materialist,
 therefore, .... regards it as his task to brush history
 against the grain. (8)

The difficulty faced by well-intentioned historiographers is to brush conventionalised representations against the grain to release their pent-up radical potential, to give voice to the silenced past. Hence the significance of returning to the most conventionalised and appropriated categories of indigeneity: by securing their radical break, the colonial procession can be robbed of its major spoils.

The barbarity of Flaherty's Nanook of the North is wrapped in a paternalistic veneer that, as Huhndorf has indicated, has for far too long been taken at face value as authentic compassion. In fact, the film has served rather to project 'fantasies of the master race' (to borrow Ward Churchill's provocative book title) on the perceived blank of the white Arctic (at once the last North American frontier and an idealised counterpoint to modernist reactions against the industrialised city). (9) Huhndorf has convincingly identified these fantasies, which include Flaherty's deployment of Nanook as a vicarious, idealised response to modern emasculation and colonial impulses, ultimately subservient to the viewer and to the white trader (pp. 138, 140); the paternalistic reading of technology, such that technological devices are ingenious but primitive versions of Western technologies (pp. 135-136); and an eroticisation of Nanook's wives and general dismissal of Inuit cultural and community life (pp. 139-140).

Donald Thomson, on the other hand, has been embraced by contemporary anthropologists and generations of Yolngu as a sincerely committed, positive influence on his subjects, and so the barbarity of his work will be seen not, as in Nanook of the North, in its projection of restrictive identifies, but rather in 'the manner it is transmitted from one hand to another', namely the colonial paradigm of observed and observer. And unlike in the Inuit case, where a veritable international craze was fuelled for highly circumscribed and explicitly colonialist representations of Nanook-like caricatures--including, as Huhndorf notes, Eskimo Pie ice-cream (p. 125)--Thomson's pictures are cherished for their evocation of lost, rarely seen moments of non-settler-influenced culture. Hence Ten Canoes will be seen to react rather to colonial ways of looking than to the content of those transmissions. Atanarjuat, on the contrary, evidences a number of strategies for undermining Nanook's childish smile, primitive technology and eroticised wives, those three iconic and strategic settler misappropriations.

Flaherty signals his colonialist assumptions from the last intertitle in his introduction, when he deploys the familiar trope of the disappearing indigene:
 I received word that Nanook had ... starved to death.
 But our 'big aggie' [film] became Nanook of the North and
 ... more men than there are stones around the shores of
 Nanook's home have looked upon Nanook, the kindly,
 brave, simple Eskimo.

Indeed, the film's enduring, enormous popularity has lived on past the Nanookmania phase, and in a very real and commonplace sense 'Southerners' have expected Flaherty's imagined Eskimos when encountering contemporary Arctic peoples. Indeed, Canadians (of all types) from supposedly cold places are from time to time confronted with these expectations, which has given rise to one of the stereotypic ways (generally) American ignorance about Canada is expressed.

It is notable then that Southern viewers are in familiar territory when, after a confusing opening scene, Atanarjuat the film reveals itself to be the story of a man named Atanarjuat. Like the titular Nanook, he too lives in igloos, has two wives, and uses apparently primitive tools. Unlike Nanook but in line with the flimic conventions of epic, action and drama, his story seems to be tragic, a slow movement towards a violent, fatal climactic fight with a ruthless enemy (Oki, son of the camp leader Sauri, and brother of Atanarjuat's flirtatious wife Puja).

Kunuk indicates his film's subversive potential particularly in his closest quotations of Nanook of the Nor& Flaherty spends several long takes on Nanook and his family's construction of an igloo, alternating from first impressing the viewer with indigenous ingenuity (part of constructing the Inuit as cleverly 'adapted' to their environment), then baffling the viewer with Nanook's intention for a block of ice, and finally offering a moment of revelation, as the ice is revealed to be a window. This last act is complemented by one of Nanook's wives appearance literally inside the domestic sphere, cleaning the new window--a good but primitive housewife. Whereas Flaherty's portrayal at once renders the Inuit as completely Other in their exotic behaviour, he nevertheless ultimately asserts both the inferiority of their cultural practices, by linking the primitive ice window with the modern glass window, and demystifies the whole process through the jolt of recognition, in effect consigning the Inuit to reflect a simplified settler or modern, western lifestyle. Nanook in turn becomes the heroic individualist, looking after his dependents while fighting against nature, a symbol of tragic self-sufficiency.

In Atanarjuat, Kunuk carefully sets an igloo construction scene within its specific cultural context, demonstrates the large group involvement necessary to set it up, and, in a particularly beautiful shot, portrays Atanarjuat contained by the incandescent roof. With this shot, repeated later in Oki and Atanarjuat's first fight and then in their final showdown, the film's austere palette is briefly expanded with the snow's striking aquamarine blues, and so literally the effect is to impart the pleasure rather than necessity of the construction. As such, it reveals Kunuk's delight in the aesthetic possibilities of Inuit life itself, without relying on connections with supposed cultural norms: sun seen through an igloo's snow-block roof is indeed a culturally specific event, but it is also a disruptive counter-history to Flaherty's Westernised analysis of what an igloo should be, which Flaherty clearly reads as the romantic tragedy of epic solitude: man against nature.

In another igloo scene, this time shot in a half-igloo-set, Nanook of the North includes the iconic, and as Huhndorf indicates, gratuitously eroticised, communal bed scene, which has definite resonance in a key moment in Atanarjuat. In Flaherty's version, the family slowly awakens to prepare for their day. Nanook's two wives are seen partially naked, presumably to the shock and delight of certain members of the film's wide audience. Here, the nudity, associates an apparent lack of modesty and natural inhibitions with primitive amorality and, by doing so, implicitly excuses the camera's presence in such an intimate setting (since the primitive is Edenic and premoral it is outside cinematic codes of modesty).

In Atanarjuat, a similarly bisected set is used. The scene appears to invite both voyeuristic pleasure and an amoral reading of Inuit sexual relations (which is to say, lacking any of the familiar signposts of morally-guided behaviour). Five figures are seen lying in bed: Atanarjuat and his two wives, the good-natured Atuat and the childish Puja (daughter of Sauri, source of the community's evil infection, and sister of Atanarjuat's enemy Oki); and Atanarjuat's brother Amaqjuaq and his wife. Only their

hair, shoulders and a few arms are visible outside the fur blankets. As one of the women initiates a sexual encounter with one of the men, none of the others react, and the viewer is lead to suspect this is normal and acceptable behaviour. In fact, this assumption is turned on its head as the event explodes into a divisive fight that manifests the film's concern with the infectious results of failing to properly acknowledge social transgressions. As it turns out, it is Puja propositioning Amaqjuaq, much to everyone else's disgust and anger. Sexual morality is returned to Inuit representations even at its most appropriable and eroticised point: the communal bed.

Ten Canoes is literally constructed around specific photographs taken by Donald Thomson in the Arafura Swamp area in the 1930s--according to the presskit, widely known to the Aboriginal residents of the area. Notably, the individuals in the pictures have been identified by their descendents, which, because of kinship issues governing representation, effectively transferred control over casting from de Heer to the members of the community. (10) Along with providing a general texture and set subjects for the film (notably the goose-egg hunt, with its special canoes and tree-platforms), several photographs are reproduced in the film, underscored by the camera pausing for a second to allow the viewer to take them in. Although this strategy is manifestly designed as a community 'gift'---a chance to see these iconic pictures in context, with the men's descendents standing in for them--it is precisely the contextualisation, in particular the precise tone, postmodernist techniques and distancing strategies that suggest a meaningful exoteric reading.

De Heer is thoughtful in his treatment of Thomson's dual inheritance (colonial explicator of indigeneity, and preserver of local traditions), something indicated through the film's division between black-and-white and colour. Significantly, there appears to be three rather than two temporal layers which are registered by black-and-white to colour shifts: these alterate from the narration to the Mingylulu and Dayindi story to the Ridjimiraril and Yeerilparil story. The bulk of the film is the character Minygululu's story to his much younger brother Dayindi, a story about an older brother Ridjimiraril and a younger brother Yeeralparil. This, Minygululu's story, is shot in colour and is set far back in the past (a past, it might be noted, explicitly located in the Yolngu cosmology). The narrative in which Minygululu finds himself is told in a time the press material indicates is just before settlement, when Minygululu, Dayindi and others are goose-egg hunting, which is shot in black-and-white. Finally, Dayindi and Minygululu are part of the narrator's story, which is spoken by David Gulpilil and is framed by very short colour shots of the swamp that introduce and conclude the film. Apparently the result of combining the black-and-white aesthetic of Thomson's photographs and a contractual obligation for colour, by ordering these narratives and moving backward into increasing artifice, de Heer deploys a manifestly postmodern commentary on his non-indigenous audience's expectations.

Specifically, the narrator's ultimate authority over the film is foregrounded by acknowledging his (presumably, but not explicitly traditional) rights over the material, thereby signalling a personal rather than conventional story-telling structure at odds with both the objectivity of Thomson's documentation and the metaphorical, impersonal nature of First World cinematic conventions: 'once upon a time', Gulpilil's ironic opening words, are transformed with a laugh into 'this is my story'. His is an immediate connection to Thomson Time, or rather a connection mediated only by his story-telling. Within this context, the austerity and authority of the black-and-white section, which is shot in a traditional, linear and objective style, and which includes direct quotations of photographs, are contextualised as ultimately part of an indigenous gaze towards the past, not the coloniser's dangerous celebration of indigenous purity. When Minygululu's story cuts back to an even more remote, prehistorical and truly timeless past, there is a sense of an ironic irreverence towards the traditional filmic vocabulary, which requires cuts to the past to be presented in apparently less technologically-sophisticated terms (Martin Scorsese's GoodFellas, for example, emulates the production qualities of the eras it moves through; Samuel Fuller's The Big Red One moves from the black-and-white of First World War footage to colour for the Second World War). (11) Alongside this irreverence, however, an assertion seems clear that those aspects of indigenous history most clearly connected to the contemporary are not the frozen images of early setder-indigene interaction, but rather the rich story-telling tradition which has passed in an unbroken line from pre-European settlement and influence to now.

In this same irreverent tone, de Heer introduces several characters face-on. Huhndorf notes that this was traditionally a stigmatised form of portraiture, and builds on this in her analysis of Nanook's laughter, shot face-on, in Flaherty's film. Huhndorf suggests, '[p]erhaps ... Allakariallak [Nanook] was actually laughing at Flaherty--at his peculiar requests and his odd scripting of the scene--and, through Flaherty, at the expectations of the film's non-Native viewers' (p. 148). De Heer interrupts the stigmatised reading by likewise having a series of characters, shot after the manner of a portrait, each in turn start smiling and laughing. By similarly challenging viewers' assumptions that the indigenous characters will be straightforwardly, traditionally represented, that the past was somehow an austere, ultimately remote period, de Heer challenges both the general and Yolngu audiences to begin interrogating the deceptively calm surface of history--in essence to brush the ethnographic against the grain.

The significance of brushing history against the grain lies in the inability of traditional historiography to capture history as such, rather than simply one, culturally constructed stream of history. History as such appears only in the underlying connections, the translatability, of different histories: so, according to Waiter Benjamin, by engaging discreet historical constructs, glimpses of history as such are possible. As in these films, the power of Flaherty's and Thomson's depictions of indigeneity, which I suggest are inextricably tied to their projection of 'the fantasies of the master race'--fantasies of content and of form--are powerfully reinterpreted by Kunuk and de Heer so that they are repositioned within an indigenous agency; and these images can afterwards function for both indigenous and non-indigenous audiences. In a famous formulation, Benjamin describes 'the nucleus' of linguistic meaning as 'the element that does not lend itself to translation': and he goes on to describe the language of the translation as that which 'envelops its content like a royal robe with ample folds'. (12) Viewing these films as translations of colonialist appropriations, I suggest Atanarjuat's mythic heroism and individualism and Ten Canoes's repeated reference to the romantic longing of Jamie Gulpilil's characters (Yeerilparil and Dayindi, the younger brothers of the stories) snap into focus as indeed obscuring yet revealing royal robes. Following Margery Fee, who describes western literature's 'favourite fantasies' as 'the self-sufficient individual ... [and] the transforming power of heterosexual love', I see Atanarjuat and Ten Canoes engaging their varied audiences through critiques of basic western genre conventions that are suggestive of but fundamentally closed off to those outside the local frame of reference. (13)

Significantly, Dayindi's apprenticeship in canoe-building and goose-egg hunting occurs alongside his cultural education, which is achieved by recognising a personal link to his brother Minygululu's story--a metonymic connection enforced by casting Jamie Gulpilil in both stories (as Minygululu's young brother Dayindi and Ridjimiraril's younger brother Yeerilparil). As Dayindi, his active engagement of the pedagogical aspects of the story, however, is entirely predicated on his desire to gratify a romantic fantasy, namely that his brother might pass on to him his youngest wife (which is indeed the very thing foremost on Yeerilparil's mind). De Heer uses this romantic longing to hook both Dayindi and the audience, repeatedly returning to it to invigorate his (and our) interest. Ultimately, however, by accepting the assumed benefits of this taboo relationship, Dayindi and the audience misread Ridjimiraril's death by seeing it as a solution to Yeerilparil's own problems rather than as a major social disruption in its own right. The joke being played by Minygululu on Dayindi and by the narrator on the audience is revealed when Yeerilparil's romantic victory is thwarted by the realities of his responsibility to the wives he inherits from his brother--a lesson that forces Dayindi to grow up.

Atanarjuat also reveals a central repositioning of the audience's expectations at its conclusion. A Nanook-of-the-North-like story is suggested by the focus on the titular Atanarjuat--tragic hero, projection of western fantasies and outcast of Igloolik--and is further enhanced by the elaborate revenge preparations with its generic revenge-film resonances. This is undermined, however, by his final realisation of self-sacrifice, denial of individualism, and reconciliation with the community. By sparing the villainous Oki's life and leaving his fate up to the community and hence ultimately the elders, Atanarjuat abandons the series of killings that have resulted from the original act of violence, namely the murder of Sauri's father that marked his violent accession to leadership. In contradistinction to the circumscribed revenge plot, a more compelling plot arc is revealed that directly connects the first scene with the last, and explicates Atanarjuat's lengthy stay with the mysterious elderly man, now revealed to be a powerful spiritual leader. Thus, this becomes not Atanarjuat's revenge against Sauri's tyranny and Sauri's children's antisocial behavior (Puja's infidelity and Oki's violent ambition), but rather a multigenerational story describing how the selflessness of a younger generation, guided by an older generation's spiritual instructions, can heal old wounds that were themselves caused by a combination of supernatural forces and human weaknesses.

In this sudden repositioning, Kunuk and de Heer realise the historiographical dialectic Benjamin describes as the 'image'. Benjamin explains this enigmatically as 'that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation ... image is dialectics at a standstill'. (14) Indeed it is story-telling as dialectics-at-a-standstill that at once elucidates and embodies the subterranean connections between audiences--indigenous and non-indigenous, local and universal mined by the filmmakers. As Flaherty inscribes Nanook's ultimate tragedy on the 'impossible' arctic landscape before the film begins, so Kunuk has inscribed the arctic as a place that functions through the individual's sacrifices for the group. By leaving the non-Inuit viewer 'out in the cold' through misdirection and his refusal to explain Inuit technology, Kunuk dooms the settler to being the one ignorant of technology, survival, culture, and indeed genre: but this reflexive reversal also indicates a social critical technology common to both films, one which posits the past not as a lost standard, but an ever-rich source of contemporary guidance; and posits major social upheaval as traumatic but reconcilable. The hegemonic myths of western genre and story-telling are reinscribed as indeed universal (that is, as common property), but not perfected by Western modernity and held out of reach of the indigene; on the contrary, the indigene is the one capable of reconciling the difficult demands of past and present, self and other, revenge and forgiveness. So the technology of Fourth World cinema becomes the technology of the image, dialectics-at-a-standstill--where the past can come together with the present in a constellation. The exoteric reading requires the audience to listen, like Dayindi, to how the story mocks the selfishness of youth and yet realise that this is not 'our' story because it is ultimately grounded in a specific community, indeed a specific individual; as David Gulpilil in Ten Canoes makes clear, this is his story, and what he reveals is on his terms: 'it's a good story--not like your story, but a good story all the same'. A personal narrative, but with a specific, self-contained significance signalled by knowing reflexivity and genre explorations: 'and they all lived happily ever after ... nab, I don't know what happened after that ... but it was like that for my people'.


I would like to extend a special thanks to Dr. Shaft Huhndorf, who very generously offered her feedback on a number of key ideas in this paper and whose excellent articles on Nanook and Atanarjuat greatly informed my reading of both films. I would also like to thank the orgarlising committee of the symposium on Comparative Approaches to Indigenous Literature as well as the anonymous readers and the members of the audience for many stimulating questions and suggestions.

(1) Atanarjuat The Fast Runner. Dir. Zacharias Kunuk. Igloolik Isuma Productions. 2000. See also 'Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) Presskit', <> [accessed 1 August 2007]. This is the first feature-length film from Igloolik Isuma Productions, a collective of three Inuit filmmakers from Igloolik and one non-indigenous filmmaker, Norman Cohn, orginally from New York. Kunuk is given directorial credit, but, as Cohn states in the presskit, 'we made our film in an Inuit way ... through consesus and collaboration' (6). Their earlier work includes documentaries and three hour-length films that are not widely available. Their most recent film is The Journals of Knud Rasmussen (2007, dir. Kunuk and Cohn), released after this paper was presented.

(2) Ten Canoes. Dir. Rolf de Heer. Vertigo Productions. 2006. Ten Canoes is listed in the closing credits as directed by Rolf de Heer, an Australian whose work had been pursuing alternately romantic and theatre-of-cruelty directions before his first collaboration with David Gulpilil, The Tracker (2002). This collaboration led to Ten Canoes, a project made in close collaboration with Gulpilil and the Aboriginal cast, and has also resulted in a number of spin-off projects for the indigenous communities in the Arafura Swamp region. On de Heer's website <> he is identified as sole director, although in other places, for example, Peter Djigirr is identified as co-director. According to de Heer's website, 'Indigenous people from the area are involved at most levels of the production, from input into and editorial control of the script to the casting and selection of locations'.

(3) Nanook of the North. Dir. Robert J. Flaherty. Revillon Freres. 1922. Donald Thomson's (1901-1970) ties to the Yolngu people and other indigenous groups in Northern Australia and Central Australia are well documented in a number of books. See Donald Thomson, Donald Thomson in Arnhem Land, Revised Edition (Carlton: The Miegunyah Press, 2003). Compiled and introduced by Nicholas Peterson, this is a collection of Thomson's writing describing his expeditions to Arnhem Land throughout the 1930s, and includes those pictures of the goose egg hunt that inspired and frame the events of Ten Canoes. Equally interesting is the commemorative exhibition documenting Thomson's squadron of Yolngu soldiers who fought under him during the Second World War: see David Thomson, N.T.S.R.U. 1941-1943 (n.p.: Yirrkala Literature Production Centre, 1992). A more lavish treatment of Thomson's photographs, together with selected field notes, has been published as Judith Proctor Wiseman, Thomson Time: Arnhem Land in the 1930s: a photographic essay (Melbourne: Museum of Victoria, 1996). Thomson's photographs are currently available for reference from the Donald Thomson Collection, Museum Victoria (located at the Melbourne Museum, Carlton).

(4) Despite the presence of key non-indigenous collaborators, a case for regarding both films as Fourth World cinema could be made on the following grounds: first, they are films identified in press-material and in their credits as in equal or majority part guided by a local indigenous population and concerning that population; second, they have been received by local populations on those terms and without widespread rejection or disapproval.

(5) In her introduction to Asen Balikci's The Netsilik Eskimo (Prospect Heights, Ill.: Waveland Press, Inc., 1970), Margaret Mead succinctly outlines an aesthetic mandate underlying what I term here traditional ethnography: 'The modern anthropologist studies primitive people as they are; if they hunt with guns instead of bows and arrows or build their houses with modern materials, he describes these innovations, however much they mar the aesthetically satisfying picture of an earlier form of life in which every detail had been polished into consistency by a thousand years of use ... [and so] he pays for his fidelity to the ways in which the people live today by never seeing, in the flesh, the way they once lived' (viii). Historiography functions in such instances as a measure of the cumulative degeneration of both a given culture and of those aesthetic categories that it is given a priori. Mead expresses this inherent contradiction very effectively when she praises Balikci's willingness to describe those conditions of modernity that are aesthetically offensive to her rather than attempting (disingenuously, it is implied) to reconstruct the primitive technology 'polished into consistency by a thousand years of use'. According to Mead's conflation of aesthetic and anthropological mandates, Balikci's insistence on depicting the Netsilik of his day immediately implies an aesthetic decision to part with the traditional subject of ethnography, tradition itself. Balikci's contemporary Netsilik thus become, for Mead, if not for Balikci, symbols of a modernity fundamentally separate from tradition.

(6) Homi K. Bhabha, 'Sly Civility', October, 34 (Autumn, 1985) 76.

(7) See Shaft Huhndorf, 'Nanook and His Contemporaries: Imagining Eskimos in American Culture, 1897-1922', Cultural Inquiry, 27.1 (2000), 122-148; Shaft Huhndorf, 'Atanarjuat, The Fast Runner. Culture, History, and Politics in Inuit Media', American Anthropologist, 105.4 (2003), 822-825. Huhndorf's articles address respectively the history of NanookmanJa and the politics of landrights operating in Atanarjuat, in both cases underscoring the relationship between historical progression and cultural erasure in indigenous representations.

(8) Walter Benjamin, 'On the Concept of History', in Selected Writings, Vol. IV, ed. by Marcus Bullock and Michael W. Jennings (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2006). p. 392.

(9) Ward Churchill, Fantasies of the Master Race: Literature, Cinema and the Colonization of American Indians (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1998); see Huhndorf, (2000), pp. 126, 133.

(10) Richard Birrinbirrin's casting in fact had an impact on the narrative. Since it was thought that his large belly would have been anochronistic, his character was written as having an inordinate love of honey--one of the many deft touches in the script.

(11) GoodFellas. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Warner Bros. Pictures. 1990. The Big Red One: the reconstruction. Dir. Samuel Fuller. 2004 (original release 1980).

(12) Walter Benjamin, 'The Task of the Translator', in Illuminations, tr. Harry Zohn (London: Fontana, 1973), p. 75.

(13) Margery Fee, 'Why C.K. Stead didn't like Keri Hulme's the bone people Who can write as Other?', Australian and New Zealand Studies in Canada, 1.1 (1989), 21.

(14) Walter Benjamin, 'Convolute N', The Arcades Project, tr. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press, 2002), p. 462.
COPYRIGHT 2007 University of Waikato
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Crosbie, Tom
Publication:JNZL: Journal of New Zealand Literature
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Jan 1, 2007
Previous Article:Performing aboriginalities: a cross-cultural perspective.
Next Article:Terminal creeds and native authors.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters