Last week Thursday I went along to UPNG to watch the documentary ‘Man Without Pigs‘. This is not a new film and many would have seen or heard about it before, but since I had never seen it I took the opportunity to head out towards Gerehu that afternoon.
Many of us are familiar with Professor John Dademo Waiko the politician, but he is an interesting man who is also a Papua New Guinean historian, anthropologist and playwright. He obtained a PhD in Social Sciences from the Australian National University and in doing so became the first Papua New Guinean to earn a PhD of any kind. It was upon his return from gaining his PhD that set the scene for this documentary.
When he traveled back to his home village of Tabara his plans were to celebrate the achievement with his own people of the Bosida clan. John having been educated in Port Moresby, London and Canberra, had little knowledge of ritual and he had no customary wealth in the form of pigs to enlist customary favors and establish alliances. So when John and his family decided to put on a dance-drama to welcome his return and assert his accomplishment they were met with challenges and skepticism.
As John’s academic adviser, Hank Nelson, (who is also in the documentary), stated
“Tabara village, John’s birthplace, is a community where no one works for money, no one pays for things with money and there are no wheels. His family, who have always lived there, expect John to compete and advance within the village, according to village rules, but he is not as alert to the detail of ritual, and the forces that flow in the village, as some of his age mate rivals. John’s strength is that he can intervene in the outside world to secure benefits for the Tabara community. His family wish him to be a man of status within the village; his rivals want to have the right to make John carry their message to the outside world.”
And so unfolds a rare insight into the antagonism aroused when conflict between custom and western values occurs in an isolated community.
I feel so thankful that Director Chris Owen and John Waiko decided to make this documentary and I couldn’t help but feel emotional in the opening scenes with John Waiko giving a speech at The Australian Museum. He ended the speech by breaking out in a traditional song which trails off as the scene changes from the Museum in Sydney to the winding Giru river leading to his village. I thought to myself how brave and proud he must be to break out in song in front of a sea of foreign faces in a foreign land. I thought to myself that I wish I could learn how to do that one day.
I know all to well the practice of politics in the village. It is something that thankfully my parents made a point of educating me about as far back as my memories of visiting the village are concerned. So I am truly thankful to them for making a point of having myself and my siblings visit both my parents villages alternatively each year. So nearly every Christmas holiday was either spent in my mothers village in Saigara, Morobe Province or my Dad’s village, Wautogik in the East Sepik Province. But still not living there has its drawbacks of not knowing completely what’s going on and one can never underestimate the usefulness of relatives as advisers when it comes to village politics.
So I was familiar with the story and its politics but what caught my attention more was just the recording of a place in time. The movie was only released in 1990 but huge changes have happened in our country since then. Even John Waiko who was there on the night to tell us about the film explained that his village no longer really exists now after the effects of Cyclone Guba. Even sadder and quite inevitably is the fact that all the elders that had assisted in the dance-drama which was performed in the film have all passed away. I’d dare say so would allot of their cultural knowledge as well.
The scale of the dance-drama and the attention to detail in regards to the traditional costumes and set built in the film appeared to be truly mesmerizing. The particular play that was preformed in the film had not been performed since the 1920’s so after the last performance during the filming I have to wonder where I will be able to see such performances again? Could we perhaps recreate such grand plays in the Botanical Gardens? So again one more of a million stories and plays that have and will continue to die as our country grows older.
After the screening we were given an opportunity to ask John Waiko questions about the film and I asked how people of my generation (like his son Bao who is in the film as a toddler and who is now a filmmaker in his own right and who was also present that night) could bridge what we have lost in the past as we gain more knowledge with modern development.
John Waiko answered that there were 2 things we could do; 1) Be proud of our culture and 2) use all the available modern technologies around us to record and tell our own stories. He admits that it is not easy because of high costs. But it would seem that his son Bao has made some great progress in this area. Bao was involved in the documentary ‘Papa bilong Chimbu‘ and he co directed and produced his fathers second film ‘Minister Without Money‘.
I look forward to seeing ‘Minister Without Money’ and Bao tells me that there will possibly be a third film to make it a trilogy of his fathers life. This one will finally bring John Waiko back to his village to lay to rest a sacred carving which he had been given in the ceremony in the first film ‘Man Without Pigs’.
As John Waiko also explained on the night, western perceptions of time (and I assume possibly human relationship as well) are linear, they go from point A to point B and then you are done. PNG’s cultural experience of time on the other hand goes in a spiral, so that nothing is ever complete so whatever village favours or debts you do now will forever be felt by your children and family. Land issues, traditional dance-dramas, marriages, deaths all have future consequences and for a people like us that are so tied to land and the environment we see and feel the consequences more sharply then most. No wonder John Waiko fears that we may be becoming too individulistic in today’s world because nothing ever ends and whether we like it or not our identity, our families, our environment even our animals like the pig are all connected.