A preliminary report on the end of the world
The John Key fan club had retreated into a closed session, though one or two puffy-faced Young Nats hung about the bottom of the stairs, their delegate ID badges prominently displayed on their expensive Tory-blue suits. (Were they hoping that some stray journalist might mistake them for backbench MPs, and take their photos?) Next door to the vast room where the National faithful had assembled, overweight shabby men banged away at pokie machines which hummed and buzzed and flashed obediently, and slim, suited men barked orders at dealers, whose arms moved backwards and forwards robotically over sea-green tables, dropping cards and scooping up chips.
As we reached the third floor of Sky City, leaving the buzzing machines and barking blackjackers behind and walking into a performance by Polynesian dancers and drummers, I was struck by the incongruity of the location that Auckland Film Festival organisers had selected for the New Zealand premiere of There Once Was An Island: Te Henua E Noho, Briar March's film about the people of the remote and imperilled Polynesian atoll of Takuu.
Over the past few months Takuu, a collection of islets on a reef two hundred and fifty kilometres north of Bougainville, far to the west of the Polynesian heartland, has suddenly become famous, as climate change activists and journalists use its battle with a rising sea to symbolise the dangers many low-lying parts of the world face from global warming. In more than a few newspaper articles, including a long feature which appeared in the New Zealand Herald a couple of months ago, the people of Takuu, who do not have electricity, let alone a carbon footprint, are cast as the innocent victims of a decadent developed world, which has put its hunger for economic growth and consumer goods ahead of ecological considerations, and ended up raising seas so high they threaten to drown low-lying Pacific atolls.
It would be hard to pick a better symbol of the decadence of twenty-first century capitalism than Sky City last Sunday, where National Party staffers on a quarter of a million a year salaries sat in well-stuffed chairs and discussed new ways of disciplining beneficiaries and the poorest workers, while nearby the psychic victims of previous attacks on the working class poured their benefits and low wage jobs into machines that robbed them with noisy efficiency. Was Film Festival supremo Bill Gosden perhaps trying to underscore the moral as well as physical distance between our decadent city and the pristine subsistence society of tropical Takuu, when he booked Briar March's film into the theatre on Sky City's third floor?
When I reached the third floor I was pleased to see that there were far more people in the foyer outside the theatre, listening to the dense, almost claustrophobic drumming and watching rows of dancers shake their hips violently while miraculously keeping their feet firmly planted in the carpet, than there were in the casino downstairs. When the performance was over the theatre filled to capacity in a few minutes; the improbably young Briar March, who runs her own film production company and has two other movies showing at this festival, looked genuinely surprised by the turnout as she thanked a variety of people who helped with the film, including 'the many boyfriends' she and her co-producer Lyn Collie have had 'over the past four years'.
The opening frames of There Once Was An Island were unpromising: a camera half-submerged in water approached the islands of Takuu slowly, while faintly menacing music sounded. Was I the only one of the five hundred viewers who was reminded of one of the more famous, and more naff, scenes from Jaws? (Perhaps, though, March is too young to remember Jaws, and realise the absurd connotations her camerawork has for old fogies like myself?)
After the worrying beginning There Once Was An Island soon found its feet, as March's small crew introduced us to some of Takuu's four hundred residents in a series of sensitive, unhurried shots. In this place where almost every meal comes at least partly from the sea, we met a young fisherman who grinned and confessed to using the traditional canoe he had fashioned from driftwood to escape regularly from the demands of his wife and his small children. We followed him to a remote part of Takuu's warm, calm lagoon, and watched as he collected a meal using techniques which have not changed in many generations.
We met a series of other islanders who exhibited the range of skills that a subsistence lifestyle on a remote atoll requires, and who talked of their pride in their history and culture. We heard how steadily rising sea levels are making the task of survival on Takuu harder and harder. A middle-aged man took us to one of the reef islets reserved for farming, and showed how brine is leaching into the soil there and slowly killing the enormous taro he grows. A group of men struggled to improvise a sea wall out of coconut trunks, in an attempt to protect the beautiful but fragile homes they build from pandanus leaves. Another man lamented the loss of a beach of golden sand to the waves that wash relentlessly over the reef. The islanders denounced the Papua New Guinean government for its failure to provide them with a regular shipping service, and for its attempts to persuade them to resettle on the unfamiliar island of Bougainville far to their south. With its Melanesian culture, its recent history of warfare, its rocky, unsafe coastline, and its malaria, Bougainville seems an uninviting place for many of the people of Takuu.
Maps in textbooks and on museum walls often illustrate the extent of Polynesia with a triangle that begins in the central Pacific, near Samoa and Tonga, and extends south to New Zealand, east to Rapa Nui, and northeast to Hawaii. Although the 'Polynesian triangle' covers a vast area of ocean and many hundreds of islands, it excludes the peoples of the so-called Polynesian outliers, who live far to the west of Samoa, in island groups dominated by non-Polynesian peoples like Melanesians, Micronesians, and Papuans.
The outliers were once thought to be 'stepping stones' that bearers of Polynesian culture crossed, as they moved out of southeast Asia towards the vast spaces of the central and eastern Pacific. In the last half-century, though, scholars have come to recognise that Polynesian culture was not brought to Polynesia from anywhere else, but rather developed within Polynesia, and in particular in the central region that includes Samoa and Tonga. It is likely that the outliers were settled by Polynesians who, having reached the central Pacific and established a culture and civilisation there, turned back to the west, in search of lands that had been bypassed during the earlier movement east. Over hundreds or even thousands of years, the outlier colonies have developed their own cultures. Takuu's inhabitants have a tradition that their forefathers arrived from Samoa a thousand years ago, and ethnographic and linguistic evidence supports this, but their language and their customs long ago became distinctive. Some of the Polynesian outliers, like well-forested Rennell Island in the Solomons, are large and robust; many, though, are tiny, flat atolls, environments as vulnerable as the isolated cultural fragments they support. A decade and a half ago Richard Moyle, a long-serving anthropologist and former editor of the Journal of the Polynesian Society, arrived on Takuu to do some research, and realised that the atoll's isolation, which is extreme even by the standards of the Polynesian outliers, had made the culture of its people distinctive and significant.
Moyle was particularly excited when he discovered that, unlike every other Polynesian society, Takuu had never been comprehensively Christianised, and still hosted all sorts of 'pagan' practices. Moyle was also struck by the lack of hierarchy on the islands, and by the way that resources were shared out equally in good times and bad. Moyle served as an advisor to the makers of There Once Was An Island, and his series of books and monographs about Takuu - works produced at the request of the islanders, who have been anxious to have their culture documented - remain the only scholarly studies of this piece of the Polynesian diaspora.
Briar March's film eventually introduced us to a Takuuan who had a radical and unusual attitude towards the plight of her homeland. A woman who left the island in her youth, married a Papuan, and made a success of herself in Port Moresby, the large and chaotic capital city of Papua New Guinea, she had returned to the island of her birth to spread the creed of Christianity, and to urge her kin to take the advice of the government and resettle on Bougainville. At a meeting in an improvised, pandanus-walled church close to the breaking waves, she led a group of other women in a series of songs and prayers, and then preached against the evil of the traditional religious rituals that are still so widespread on Takuu, claiming that these practices were responsible for many of the islanders' woes. Only by settling on Bougainville, swapping their subsistence lifestyle for wage labour, and exchanging traditional beliefs for fundamentalist Chrisitianity can the Takuuans survive God's wrath, she claimed.
While the evangelist we met represents a minority viewpoint, it would be wrong to dismiss her chances of winning over her fellow islanders. In some other Polynesian outliers, a history of isolation and the absence of competition between different Christian denominations has meant that conversion to Christianity has been an extremely fast and extremely thoroughgoing affair. Rennell Islanders, for instance, remained pagan until 1938, and then converted to Seventh Day Adventism in a matter of weeks, junking much of their traditional culture in the process.
When two scientists - John Hunter, an English oceanographer, and Scott Smithers, an Australian expert on atolls - were brought to Takuu by the film-makers there was hope that a solution might be found to the problems caused by rising sea levels. Probing water tables, measuring tides, and inspecting sea walls, Hunter and Smithers soon established a rapport with the Takuuans. Despite their isolation and their relative lack of education, the islanders quickly assimilated the complex theories and research findings Hunter and Smithers shared with them. One islander joked that he had learned so much from the scientists that he almost felt like one of them himself.
Hunter and Smithers decided that the impact of rising sea levels can be lessened, and that Takuu can remain habitable for a long time, if certain measures are taken. Some measures, like the relocation of homes to higher ground and the dismantling of sea walls that prevent the build-up of new beaches, can be understaken without great expense. Others, though, like the construction of a sophisticated sea wall in deep lagoon water, require funds that seem unlikely to come from the Papua New Guinea government. The work of Smithers and Hunter made the Takuuans more optimistic about their future, but this optimism was soon washed away by a series of surge tides that sent large dirty waves through homes and into the island's school, ruining foodstores and soaking textbooks. In the aftermath of this disaster islanders began to go hungry, as they waited for emergency food supplies from the government. Although the surge tide and its after-effects claimed no lives, they were a major blow to morale, and There Once Was An Island ended with many Takuuans thinking seriously about resettling on Bougainville, even if doing so meant losing the way of life they love.
After being treated to two prolonged rounds of applause, Briar March invited us all down to the Wintergarden room, at the bottom of the Civic theatre, to watch a panel discussion about her film. I joined the crowd heading down the hill, partly because I wanted to hear from Smithers, Hunter and Richard Moyle, but also because I have fond memories of the Wintergarden, and of the Civic theatre in general, from my childhood, when its Orientalist interiors, shadowy staircases and corridors, and impossibly deep blue, star-sprinkled mock sky would make me feel like I had stepped into some alternative reality. The Civic's interior was more exciting than many of the films my parents took me there to watch, and I'm always happy to revisit it. When I arrived at the Wintergarden the room seemed stranger than ever, because Polynesian drummers and dancers were swaying amidst the mock-Moorish pillars and frescoes.
The panel discussion and the question and answer session which followed it were sometimes as strange as their setting. Sitting between the lean, serious Hunter and the affable Smithers, the silver-haired, suited Richard Moyle looked distinctly unimpressed with proceedings. When Smithers cracked jokes, Moyle's thin mouth barely twitched. When he was given the microphone, Moyle gave a sober, prepared speech, instead of the animated, improvised talks offered by his fellow panelists. At one point an audience member politely interrupted Moyle to protest that she couldn't hear him. 'Well, I can't hear you', the veteran anthropologist responded, before continuing at the same volume.
It is a pity that Moyle couldn't be heard by everybody at the Wintergarden, because he had some fascinating things to say. Moyle paid tribute to Takuu culture, saying that it is as rich and as vibrant as the culture of any Polynesian society. He said, with a certain amount of pride, that the islanders are famous throughout Bougainville Province for their refusal to abandon their traditions in the face of the dubious charms of Christianity and capitalism. Moyle, who had the honour of publishing the first dictionary of the Takuuan language, noted that the islanders' word for 'different' is the same as their word for 'danger'. Because of their long seclusion, the threat which faces them now seems positively apocalyptic: the destruction of their island 'equals the destruction of the world'. But Moyle believes that the Takuu people may be able to draw on the great journey they made a thousand years ago from Samoa as an inspiration, and undertake a new migration without losing their identity. He thinks that the expatriate Takuuan population in Papua New Guinea will give vital assistance to the islanders if they resettle on Bougainville.
Moyle's words might have seemed overly optimistic, but there have been other Pacific peoples who have been forced, in modern times, to abandon their home islands, and yet have succeeded in preserving their culture in a new setting. The Micronesian people of Banaba Island had their atoll torn up by phosphate-hungry Britons in the middle of last century, and were dispatched to the volcanic island of Rabi in the Fijian archipelago, thousands of kilometres to the south. Despite their minority status on Fiji, they have held on to their traditions and identity. At the beginning of this year I spent a few days on 'Eua, the southernmost inhabited island in Tonga, where hundreds of people from the island of Niuafo'ou far to the north were resettled in the 1950s after their villages were covered in lava and volcanic rocks. The people of Niuafo'ou did not abandon their heritage, but instead gave the new settlements they built on 'Eua the names of the villages of their beloved homeland. In more recent times, a couple of villages of Tuvaluans have successfully relocated from their low-lying homeland to Niue, an island depopulated by decades of migration to New Zealand.
After Moyle finished his presentation, an elderly woman rose determinedly to her feet and aimed a question at him. 'If global warming is such a concern to you, why you don't do something about it yourself?' she demanded in a barely controlled voice. 'Why don't you stop flying and using up carbon and stay at home instead of going off to this island?' It seemed a remarkably aggressive question, but it elicited a shy smile from Moyle. 'That is my beloved wife' he said slowly. 'I am going back to Takuu on Tuesday. I have promised her this will be my last trip.' The rest of the audience burst into laughter, but Mrs Moyle wasn't even smiling as she sat back down.
After they were asked about Takuu culture, Scott Smithers and Briar March both talked about how impressed they were by the happy egalitarianism of the islanders. March said that, after the cashless economy and rigorously fair distribution of food and other essentials on Takuu, she suffered culture shock when she travelled to the Gold Coast to do some technical work on her film. The inequality and conflict of capitalist society upset her. Smithers said he experienced a similar sense of dislocation when he returned from Takuu, where children play contentedly for hours with rubber bands and seem never to quarrel amongst themselves, to his home in the suburbs of Australia, where he found his children fighting over lavish Christmas presents.
Smithers' and March's reflections prompted a couple of contrasting contributions from audience members. In a voice that became progressively more agitated, a woman asked whether Takuu culture was worth preserving, given that it seemed to be 'rooted in the past' and incompatible with the 'global culture' that those of us who live in the West supposedly enjoy. Wouldn't it be better, she asked, in what seemed intended as a rhetorical question, to remove the Takuuans from their homeland and bring them into the modern world?
In a sensitive response to these rather insensitive remarks, Lyn Collie argued that the Takuuans themselves ought to be able to decide the shape of their society. Many of them, the producer of March's film suggested, might want to 'have a foot in both worlds', by maintaining their culture whilst also opening it up to new influences, and by maintaining elements of a subsistence economy at the same time that they earned more cash, and thus better access to the modern world. The advocate of 'global culture' was undeterred by these words, and launched into another broadside about the need to abandon 'traditionalism' in order to enjoy the 'fruits' of modernity. For her, the cultures of the Takuu islanders and of other indigenous peoples seemed to be static things, wholly incapable of changing and incorporating the new and the useful. They had to be cast away, like old clothes.
Another member of the audience advanced a very different, yet equally one-sided, interpretation of Takuu culture. A young man with the sickly, tofu-grey skin and evangelical manner of a vegan, he announced that he was working on a Masters thesis which would explain that the cause of global warming and most of the rest of the world's ills was 'consumerism as an identity'. Capitalism, he explained in a voice that managed to be at once high-pitched and grave, was a product of the desire of ordinary people to 'define themselves as consumers'. The world could be cured of its ills if its inhabitants learnt from the people of Takuu island, and abandoned their 'consumerist identities' in favour, presumably, of a subsistence lifestyle.
I hope that the earnest young vegan's thesis supervisor pushes him in the direction of a classic study of the origins of capitalism like EP Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class, or Marx's chapter on primitive accumulation in Capital. As both those authors showed, the working class which forms a large majority of the population in advanced capitalist societies did not 'choose' capitalism because it had developed a fetish for consumer goods. In nation after nation, capitalism was established as peasants were forced to abandon their land, get jobs in noisy, dangerous factories, and stay alive by buying commodities like bread and shelter. If the people of Takuu have to leave their home for Bougainville, they may well become labourers on one of the island's cocoa or palm oil plantations, and have no choice but to survive by purchasing commodities. In a capitalist economy, people have to buy and consume goods. Why they should be chided for this necessity is not clear.
To present the people of Takuu as across-the-board opponents of a cash economy also seems wrong-headed. Discussing the situation of the islanders, Briar March said that they would like to have more sources of cash, so that they could more easily pay their children's tuition fees. Could we possibly condemn the Takuuans for wanting their children to consume the commodity that is education in Papua New Guinea?
It seems to me that the two members of the audience I have been criticising offered versions of two very common Western responses to indigenous societies. The aggressive advocate for 'global culture' and the abolition of Takuu identity had the the teleological view of history and the uncritical admiration of modernity that was endemic amongst the nineteenth century missionaries who were so determined to 'civilise' Pacific peoples, and which is often today found, in a secular form, amongst the 'experts' on Third World 'economic development' employed by organisations like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The earnest young opponent of consumerism, on the other hand, seemed intent on recycling the romantic image of the Pacific islander as a 'noble savage' which so captivated European intellectuals like Gauguin and Robert Louis Stevenson in the nineteenth century, and which still influences popular perceptions of the region today.
It is to Briar March's credit that her film avoided the sort of cliches that I have been criticising. Like the texts of Richard Moyle, There Once Was An Island did not try to diminish the complexity and dynamism of Takuu society. Instead of siding with one faction on the island over another or paternalistically lecturing her subjects, March has allowed the people of Takuu to tell their own stories.
Footnote: you can contribute to a fund set up to help the people of Takuu through this page, which is a part of the official There Once Was An Island website.