The opening aerial shot of Rolf de Heer's Ten Canoes snakes slowly and smoothly over a narrow river winding through the Australian outback, while narrator David Gulpilil recounts an aboriginal birth legend. Then Gulpilil's story subtly changes into an explanation of how the ancients made canoes for egg-hunting, and de Heer inserts beautiful black-and-white footage of men carving in the bush. Then one of the carvers begins recounting a legend of his own, which Gulpilil picks up and continues, as de Heer changes the image from black-and-white to color, and introduces a tribe full of unusual characters. By 20 minutes into Ten Canoes, de Heer and Gulpilil—with vital contributions from cinematographer Ian Jones and native acting coach/location scout Peter Djigirr—have established the kind of "wizened storyteller tells a tale" tone designed to have viewers leaning in to hear more.
The story eventually branches off, filling in the pieces of mythology and anthropology necessary to understanding why the aboriginal ancients behave as they do. Mostly though, Ten Canoes stays with one legend, about the day a strange man, claiming to be a sorcerer, introduced himself to one tribe on his way back to his own people. Shortly afterward, a woman goes missing, and a great debate begins about whether the stranger was involved, and what to do about it. Eventually, someone acts rashly, and repercussions ensue.
If Ten Canoes aspires to metaphor, there's nothing overt about it. The movie can be read as a meditation on mankind's place in the natural order, or a paean to the importance of narrative, or even a commentary on the horrendous mistakes that superstitious mobs can make. But mostly, it's a feat of immersive ethnography, explaining the dynamics of hunter-gatherers by letting us share their dirty jokes and marital spats. Like a lot of folk tales, Ten Canoes peters out into something more prosaic than profound, but it flows like water, and has a deceptively gentle pull that proves hard to escape.