Killer Whale and Crocodile: a film review


I want to thank Pamela Rosi and Elaine Monds for sending me this DVD. Killer Whale and Crocodile is a wonderful documentary produced by Peter Campbell and Art Holbrook. It tells the story of  a cultural exchange between two carvers; John Marston, a Coast Salish carver from Vancouver Island and Teddy Balangu, a carver from the Middle Sepik River. The cultural exchange was facilitated by Elaine Monds, the owner of the Alcheringa Gallery of Canada and Dr. Carol Mayer, Oceanic Curator of the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia.

In 2006 John, Elaine and Carol visited Teddy in his village of Palembei in Middle Sepik. It was then organised for Teddy to return the gesture by going to Canada through a Andrew Fellow, where he was the artist in residence at the Museum of Anthropology for 5 months.

The documentary is stunningly shot and it reminded me of the fact that I obviously have not seen everything in my own country. As the film begins and our visitors travel further up the Sepik River to Palembei, Carol begins to note the change  in the carvings. It becomes apparent to her that the same look-alike carvings we see at the shops in cities are definitely more mundane compared to the unique carving pieces she is seeing on this journey.

One interesting aspect of the documentary was how Elaine spent time talking to the carvers about prices and carving valuations in the international markets. She explained that in several cases she had paid twice more than what they thought it was worth in an effort to give the carvers more value for their art. This is a sensitive area and if she is able to do that while building true human relationships with the carvers then I can see this as an example of how a more sustainable industry can be developed where everyone gets into the business with all the information at hand.

But at the heart of this documentary is the story of two people, with the same passion for carving and although from different cultures shared a very common ideal of preservation, exploration and sharing through their art form. As John put it, as he explored the work in Palembei, the only thing that was really different from what he was doing in Vancouver were the animals that they were carving. So while John is in Palembei, he begins his carvings to show his interpretation of Sepik culture through his style of carving. Then later in the film, when Teddy visits Canada, he in turn is given an opportunity to show his skills and interpretations of John’s culture by carving a totem pole.

You can’t help but smile at how both carvers absorb each others energy and cultures. Definitely a heart warming story of two peers, who after having sifted through all the differences in culture, language and geography, finally end up realising how much alike they really are. A story of two carvers and a story of a Killerwhale and a crocodile. (Watch the trailer here.)


  • “Killerwhale and Crocodile records the experiences and reflections of these men. It provides unique perspectives on the relevance of traditional artistry in an increasingly globalized world; on the benefits and challenges of cross-cultural dialogue; on what it means to be a contemporary indigenous artist. For further context, Carol Mayer of UBC’s Museum of Anthropology and Elaine Monds of Alcheringa Gallery discuss changing attitudes towards aboriginal artists in both the museum field and the art market. The film is also very beautiful, with locations ranging from flooded hardwood jungle to old-growth spruce forest, from a thirty-man carving session in a haus tambaran (spirit house) to a Coast Salish welcome ceremony in a longhouse. Drawing it all together, of course, is a lot of spectacular art.”

Dan Lepsoe, Co-curator – Rhythms of the Garamut

  • Contact Alcheringa Gallery to order this film on DVD for home use. For institutional or VHS copies, contact Moving Images Distribution.
  • A film produced and developed by Gumboot Productions Inc. and Arthur Holbrook Productions Inc. in association with Bravo!, a division of CTV globemedia.

3 thoughts on “Killer Whale and Crocodile: a film review

  1. Yes, this a gem of a production. It was broadcast without fanfare a few months ago on a weekend afternoon – ABC or SBS. Deserves a wide audience here in PNG. Perhaps the Canadian Goverment could be persuaded to sponsor its broadcst on EMTV?

  2. Thanks for this review. I have forwarded it to Elaine Monds. As I mentioned to you earlier, this film is such a contrast to O’Rourke’s film Cannibal Tours, which is about tourist-native encounters in the Sepik. This should be available in the UPNG library. Cannibal Tours (as the title suggests) raises the question of cannibalism of the tourists and their fascination with “the primitive”. My students are shocked. At the end – to a sound track of Mozart (symbolizing civilization), the tourists have their faces painted with Iatmul designs appropriating them…and all this in the name of capitalism. Killer Whale, by contrast, is about cultural rapport and equal exchange for the benefit of both Teddy Balangu and John Marston – and really for humanity as their creativity benefits us all.

    I would like to add one thing to your review which is important to me – that is the animals. In the indigenous world view of both the Iatmul and the Salish, the animals carved are totemic animals and therefore integral to spiritual relationships between men, animals, and the natural world. In the Salish world view, the world is always in transformation and interconnected. Totemic “religions” (spirituality) are found among hunting and gathering peoples and gardeners where humans live in a symbiotic relationship to the natural world and depend upon it. This is quite different from the Old Testament biblical view in Genesis where man is given domination over nature which, perhaps, has contributed to our attitudes towards the natural world. This is why traditional mythologies and other world views have relevance for us today. I think this is what Michael Mel is saying when he says that PNG education needs to have a strong indigenous input of traditional voices…what your uncle also wrote about. Of course you can differ about interpretations of the Melanesian Way – and Papua New Guineans ( especially women) did.

    But mythologies and legends of people all over the world are about values, relationships, problems of “good and evil”, etc….really problems all humans have in living together and managing the environment. While I agree with Elaine Monds that contemporary Iatmul art must be valued for its aesthetic power as “art”, as an anthropologist, I think understanding is deepened and made more valuable if the meanings of the works are understood in their complexity. I have worked with Martin Morububuna, Larry Santana (the late) Jakupa and other artists where their work has meaning on several levels…all of which need to be understood. I really liked your point (and that of the film makers) that cultural exchange does not mean that cultural identity is lost. Both Teddy’s and John’s work remind Iatmul or Salish because neither artist was “copying” but interpreting the other culture in their own terms. This is why all these debates about “authenticity” (always directed to indigenous artists by western critics) are so misplaced. Artists never work in vacuums because no cultures are completely isolated – though innovation is treated differently depending on the culture(s) concerned.

    Wish you could come to London to attend Hailans to Ailans because all the artists will be there to talk about their own work and how it relates to the dynamics of contemporary PNG culture and society…the old and the new.

    Was the interview with the film makers part of the DVD because I had not seen it before? I think they showed quite a lot of empathy with the subject of the film and I liked the way they had a lot of dialogue so you heard different voices. One point, traditional carvings made with stone tools were extraordinary art works; the introduction of steel tools have allowed carvings to be made much quicker and have facilitated the use of fine lines which artists apparently like. I noted the film makers used the work primitive once. That was somewhat unfortunate because it is no longer a word of parlance with anthropologists or art historians because of its disparaging connotations. Old stereotyped die hard so you have to keep chipping away at them. If you have any teacher friends who could use the film in any of their classes, do lend it around because I know that teaching budgets in PNG are very restricted and teachers probably cannot afford to buy the film.


  3. Thank you Emmanuel for your thoughtful review of Killerwhale and Crocodile. The making of the film and the exchange was an experience that will always have an impact on the lives of both John and Teddy. The contribution that can be made by Alcheringa Gallery in assisting these carvers to create a sustainable living from their carving can at best be small. However, it is our hope that there will develop a ripple effect from this film and other international efforts to expose the work of these extraordinary artists that eventually will be felt around the globe and most significantly back in the village.

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