Monday, November 30, 2009

Native Films as a National Mirror

The article first appeared in Steven's Window column The National newspaper. Friday 27 November 2009.

After the first audition for Jungle Child, film adaptation of a children’s book based on the personal diary of a German girl, Nadine’s childhood in New Guinea, my children were recalled for the second casting. My daughter aged 13 and son aged 10 had me drive them to Gateway Hotel on two Saturdays in October for the second audition.

Several people in Port Moresby that I know turned up with their children or for themselves as potential actors in the movie. Seeing the interests in acting in feature films I kept thinking about what Houston Wood, an American scholar of Indigenous films said about feature films.
“Traditional oral storytelling is unlike a cinematic narrative, they fear…Similar fears were once voiced about how movies represent Shakespeare, the Bible, and other classic western styled texts. The point here is that it has become a norm now that “it is generally accepted that film adaptation can reinvigorate older European traditions for a new generation. We need to seriously consider how it is that we ignored one of the powerful medium of communication: the film…. there seems no a priori reason why feature films cannot similarly translate Indigenous stories into new forms that help keep traditional Indigenous cultures alive.” How true could this be?

My friend and colleague, Vilsoni Hereniko of Rotuma, now the Director of the Center for Pacific Islands Studies at the University of Hawaii made his first feature film, The Land Has Eyes based on his personal upbringing on Rotuma. His film makes uses of a Rotuman mythology of a warrior woman, Sina, as the cultural framework for the film. The actors were all Rotuman villagers, school kids, and teachers, except for two characters. During the first showing on the island the entire islanders turned up to watch the movie and wanted more.

Then there was Witi Ihimaera, the Maori writer’s film The Whale Rider, based on his novel inspired by the Maori mythology of a clan with a lineage to whales in mythological time and homeland. I first saw the film in Hawaii, during a writers’ festival I was part of in 2004. The Whale Rider remains one of the popular Indigenous films ever made.
Other Indigenous films one can easily find in any video shops are the Samoan Wedding and the Aboriginal film Ten Canoes. Each of these films has a unique and wonderful story to tell to the world. Watching these films with my children had a powerful and transformative effect on us.
What am I getting at here? Feature film making in Papua New Guinea needs to be encouraged. The last international successful major feature film was Albert Toro and Chris Owen’s Tukana: Husait I Asua? I attended the closing of a workshop of TV production in Port Moresby in the last week of October 2009. The workshop was attended by members of National Broadcasting Commission, National Film Institute, Department of Information and Communication and Albert Toro himself. I had the opportunity to meet Albert Toro and Joe Eladona at that time. I shared with the workshop participants a moment of reflection of the issue of feature films and documentary film making in PNG. It was also good to note that Kundu 2 TV would now have radio drama Kunai Street converted into a soap opera for TV.

I mentioned to Albert Toro that I had read his paper on “Film and National Identity in PNG”, presented at the International Film Festival Symposium in Hawaii in November 1983. The observation he made in the 1980s remains evident today. Here are some of the issues Toro raised at that time:

“The mirrors which the nation uses to see its internal and exported image are found generally in the more public media such as radio, film and the recently introduced home video system. Of the three formats, film is by far the most accessible nearly everywhere because of its easy transferability to television which is immediate and seen world-wide. In the case of Papua New Guinea, however, there has not been any meaningful government support of the commercialization of indigenous film products or of the country (90% of the population is in the rural areas). This can be attributed to several factors: film exhibition and distribution, completely in the hands of expatriates; the government does not have any priorities on the cultural or commercial aspects of indigenous film production, exhibition and distribution, foreign film-makers are allowed into the country to interpret the lifestyle (s) of the people with no intimate knowledge of the intricate factors which go into the process of bush life, hence turning out at best sensational film products made for a prurient western-oriented audience; no policy on-hand, to describe the direction which the Papua New Guinea people themselves want to travel in to control their image.”

Such views from our pioneer feature film maker remind us that the Papua New Guinea government need to step up to the challenge to support the development of local feature film and documentary making. I doubt if Albert Toro’s views have changed much with the introduction of the government owned Kundu 2 TV station under the wings of the National Broadcasting Cooperation. The National Film Institute and the Department of Information and Communication may want to listen to this veteran’s views as he has more wisdom to offer at this time.
The challenge for film makers and TV production in Papua New Guinea is to encourage more local film makers and documentary film makers. The change such an approach would make is that Papua New Guineans can identify with the film and the film maker’s points of view. The opportunity to work on a film with local content led by a local film maker begins a process of skills development in the film and TV industry for Papua New Guineans. At the moment it is rare to find local feature film makers and documentary film makers. We need to cultivate our talents in this area of development in Papua New Guinea.


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