Interview - Rolf De Heer


Miles Fielder talks to filmmaker Rolf De Heer (pictured) about his ingenious new aboriginal history adventure film Ten Canoes


Netherlands-born, Australia-raised filmmaker Rolf de Heer’s celebrated career has been as eclectic as it has been eccentric. In the 20-plus years this tall, rangy Aussie has written and directed a children’s film, a science fiction mystery and a battle-of-the-sexes psychological thriller, been nominated for the Cannes Palme d’Or twice and courted controversy with the disturbing Bad Boy Bubby (1993). De Heer’s next going to make an homage to silent comedies called Dr Plonk.

But first he’s produced a film that’s ‘out there’ even by his own standards: Ten Canoes, a jungle adventure set in the remote Arafura Swamp in Australia’s Northern Territory that features a cast comprised of local, Yolngu aboriginals. Not only is the film, which was awarded the Cannes Special Jury Prize, unique in de Heer’s oeuvre.

‘The film’s narrator David Gulpilil is the pre-eminent indigenous actor in Australia,’ says de Heer. ‘I cast him in my film The Tracker without having met him, because I’d seen his other films, from Walkabout to Rabbit Proof Fence. He invites lots of filmmakers to come up to his tribal lands. Nobody ever goes, because it’s too hard. I thought I should go and share some culture. Every time I met him after The Tracker he’d say, “When are you coming up to make a film with my mob?” Eventually I did.

‘I was speaking to the likely distributor for the film and he was saying, “Careful that it doesn’t become a white guilt thing, because maybe we’ve had enough of that.’ I said, “It’s their [the Yolngu] story. It’s whatever story they want to tell.” A couple of weeks later I was back up north to start making the film, and the community had independently got to the point of setting the whole film in the past and making it about kidnapping, sorcery and goose egg hunting. Now, there were no white people at all in this film. I said, “Great. Everyone’s going to be happy.”

‘It’s a very remote place. The town of Ramingining is remote enough, and we were an hour away, camping in tents by the side of the swamp for months trying to make this film. Mosquitoes, crocodiles, leeches - you name it, it’s there in vast quantity.

‘It was important to the Yolngu to make a film that their kids could watch and learn from, and know where they came from. Their whole culture is shifting in a different direction, so to have this record of their origins is important. And then it was important to transmit that to the rest of the world, and have the world appreciate their culture has value.’

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