Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Tapu, pigs, and power: talking about Tongan Ark

[When Paul Janman previewed his Tongan Ark in the Auckland Film Archive's cramped theatre before Christmas, the audience consisted mostly of Tongan intellectuals and members of the New Zealand film industry. I was keen to show the Ark to a few of my literary mates, so I coaxed Paul around to my place, where he rigged up a giant screen on the lounge room wall. After the last reel I caught a few members of the audience on tape, as they reached for beers and steaks and discussed some of the ideas in Paul's film. Here's a transcript...]

Ted Jenner: Could you tell me more, Paul, about the background to the scenes of rioting and streetfighting in your film? The burning and the looting...

Paul Janman: I shot that footage on the 16th of November 2006, during the riot which destroyed much of downtown Nuku'alofa. The riot began as a peaceful demonstration for greater democracy in Tonga. Commoners, who make up almost all of the population of the country, were tired of seeing nobles dominating parliament, and the king choosing the country's Prime Minister. Pro-democracy politicians like 'Akilisi Pohiva were demanding the reform of the constitution, so that commoners elected the majority of seats in parliament, and so that the king became a merely symbolic leader...

The Tongan monarchy, rather like the Thai monarchy, has traditionally been a symbol of independence from the West. It was created, in its modern form, partly because Tongans realised, in the middle of the nineteenth century, that if they did not have a strong central government then they would be colonised. Many Tongans consider that the monarchy saved them from losing their land and their culture to Europeans. But the institution has now, in the eyes of many, become a problem. The royal family and the nobles are often accused of corruption - they are particularly notorious for using their control of the state to get rich running monopolistic and inefficient businesses.

The 2006 protest may have begun peacefully, but it turned into a sort of violent party. The protesters stole all the liquor from the duty free shops and expatriates' clubs around Nukua'lofa. And once some of the liquor had been drunk, someone had the bright idea of burning the town down... Scott: But the destruction wasn't indiscriminate, was it? Certain businesses were targeted - those associated with the royal family, and also those owned by Chinese...

Paul: And then, funnily enough, the Chinese government stepped in and funded the reconstruction of central Nuku'alofa! There are building sites full of Chinese workmen. China is making a big effort to strengthen economic ties with South Pacific nations, and I notice that the rebuilding programme isn't an act of charity - it's actually a sort of loan to the Tongan Tonga will be able to repay the debt I don't know -

Jack Ross: In a sense you can't win, can you? You topple a traditional oligarchy, a homegrown oligarchy, and then you get an international oligarchy, and what chance do you have of influencing them, when you're a small country so far from head office? Once you've got the Coca Cola company or its equivalent calling the shots, it's very hard to influence them.

Scott: I do think that the system which has existed in Tonga for the last century and a half - the system centred on the modern monarchy - has survived for so long because it has some positive qualities. The constitution created by the first modern Tongan king prevented the sale of land to foreigners and guaranteed each male citizen a livelihood. King Tupou the first was trying to find a way to balance Western modernity and Tongan tradition. He had travelled to Australia and seen the poverty of the working class there, and he knew about the dispossession of the Waikato people in New Zealand. And I think that Futa Helu, in a way, tried to perform the same balancing act when he built up 'Atenisi University. He wanted to fuse Western and Polynesian ideas. He wanted a marriage of equals.

Paul: Futa was often referred to as the alternative king of Tonga. That gives you an idea of the mana he had in Tongan society. He was in some ways more respected than the real king. He was penniless for most of his life, like Socrates, but he had a subterranean influence on Tongans. People would attack him in public but seek his advice in private. The royal family sometimes sought his advice when it was planning public events like weddings or coronations, because he had such a profound knowledge of Tongan culture, Tongan genealogy, Tongan etiquette. 'Atenisi was at times persecuted by the government, but it was never shut down, because the king knew that it had a level of public support - he knew that a thousand people would descend on the campus and protest... The present king of Tonga is a very educated man, an even more educated man than his father - he went to exclusive schools, he knows several European languages, he's very cosmopolitan - and he gets bored in Tonga. He used to send a black London taxicab down to Futa's house -the king likes those big black cabs because you can wear a sword and travel comfortably in them - and the car would bring Futa up to one of the royal residences. The king and Futa would drink all night, then the big black cab would head back to 'Atenisi, and Futa would roll out...
Scott: Futa was quite a carpenter, wasn't he? The title of your film alludes to the fact that he quite literally built 'Atenisi himself, after travelling to 'Eua and harvesting some trees -

Echo Zena-Janman: Not only did Futa build the school - he built the ground the school stands on. In the early '60s it was swamp, and so Futa and his followers had to lay shells and gravel, before they could build...the ground around the school is still swampy, and certain buildings - the library, for instance - seem almost encircled by water. That's not good for the books, of course...

Richard Taylor: I liked how laidback Futa and the other educators at 'Atenisi seemed in the film. They seemed able to laugh at anything...

Paul: Futa was very laidback. He got Harvard-trained classicists to work for a bag of taro a week. He had a laidback charm. He wasn't interested, for a long time, in keeping records or having curricula. He could be a fatalist. Sometimes he seemed to accept that the school he had established would die. He had a long view of history - he knew, like his hero Heraclitus, that nothing was eternal -

Ted: But Heraclitus isn't necessarily a fatalist. Heraclitus emphasised renewal as well as destruction -

Paul: In a sense 'Atenisi has perpetuated itself, has renewed itself, by sending its graduates into universities and other institutions around the world. In New Zealand graduates like 'Okusi Mahina and Opeti Taliai - and I could mention many other names - have made their mark. Even though the institution is struggling, to say the least, in Tonga, it is renewing itself as part of the Tongan diaspora...

Ted: I've spent my life teaching and translating the Greeks, so you won't be surprised that I find it extraordinary and inspiring to learn that 'Atenisi was teaching Greek for decades - from the late 1970s, in fact, until recently. In the same period New Zealand schools stopped offering Greek to their students. What an achievement, for a poor school in a tiny nation to be teaching Heraclitus and other Greek thinkers in ancient Greek!

Scott: And yet there seem to be some Tongans who consider that Futa took too reverential an attitude towards the Western intellectual tradition, and too critical an attitude towards Tongan culture and thought. The poet Konai Helu Thaman, for instance, seems to consider that Futa was too dismissive of Tongan tradition, and in the discussion that followed the first preview of Paul's film Okusi Mahina criticised Futa Helu's interpretation of tapu.

'Okusi argued that Helu and some of his followers - I think he was referring to Opeti Taliai and Michael Horowitz - treated tapu, treated the system of prohibitions and distinctions we refer to using the word tapu, as nothing but a means for chiefs to control commoners in traditional Tongan society. But 'Okusi argued, if I understood him rightly, that tapu was much more than this - that it was a way of dividing up the world, and that it was rooted in the very language Tongans use. It was a foundation of the Tongan world.

'Okusi seemed to think that the critics of tapu - those who would condemn it as irredeemably irrational - had their own, unacknowledged ways of arbitrarily dividing the world up - their own tapu, in other words. They were pretending to sit on a mountaintop, above all irrationality, but were missing the biases that the European intellectual tradition gave them -

Jack: But it's like the argument about Christianity in general, or about religion in general. People used to criticise Gibbon for his depiction of the early Christians, the Christians of the Roman Empire, as a bunch of ignorant hairy fanatics destroying everything in their path - they said you've just missed the whole point, the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the fact that God was guiding them. Gibbon said "I don't see any God - I just see a bunch of hairy fanatics: what do you expect me to write?"

So finally when you're describing a system which clearly works in favour of the ruling class, which benefits the powerful, who cares how aesthetically beautiful some of the expressions of that system are, or how spiritualised they are? Who cares how wonderful church music or architecture are? At the end of the day power systems tend to legitimise themselves in aesthetic forms, and to gradually entrench themselves in people's hearts and souls, and then they become very difficult to dislodge. But you've got to combat them. I think it's good if the film's offended some people - you don't want to try to please everyone.

Paul: I was worried about my position as a palangi observer of a Tongan institution. I tried not to make a black and white film - I wanted to present what I saw as a series of paradoxes in 'Atenisi life, and in Tongan life. The film isn't supposed to proceed in a linear manner. Themes are touched on, put aside, then picked up later.

Richard: There seem to be points where an argument is introduced overtly - when it comes straight out of someone's mouth - and then is carried on covertly, through images. I noticed somebody talking about Heraclitus, and his notion of flux, before the focus of discussion moved to another subject. Even as the overt subject of the film shifted, though, a series of images of the sea swelling and breaking were shown. I saw these images as allusions to, or illustrations of, Heraclitus' notion of flux and flow. The film seemed to be working on multiple levels.

And the film gave me an overwhelming feeling of strangeness, especially in its early stages. I felt the alieness of Tonga -

Paul: It exists in a different time and space. The very fact that people find it possible, in Tonga, to sit back and think about Heraclitus for days on end, to sit around the kava bowl and philosophise at such length - this is something that impressed me when I spent two years teaching at 'Atenisi. The methods of teaching there were partly determined by the plentiful supply of time, and by the porous nature of the boundaries between work and leisure.

Ted: What were you teaching at 'Atenisi?

Paul: I gave a course in world literature. I'd begin with the Greeks, with Aristophanes and other dramatists, then work through Don Quixote, and Moby Dick, I did the Romantic poets, Tagore, a lot of Joyce -

Scott: What was Futa Helu's teaching style like?

Paul: He never read lectures. He improvised. He did often have lists of dates - lists that began in pre-Socratic times, and went through to the present. He had a very informal way of teaching, and an informal, sometimes eccentric way of mentoring his staff. I remember when one teacher arrived at the school, from the United States - Futa left a note for her that said 'Welcome -we here in Tonga think that blacks are too black, and whites are too white, whereas we are a mellow shade of brown. Tell that to the American racists!' That was Futa's idea of course notes...

Richard: I liked the pigs in the film! They're everywhere!

Scott: Tongan pigs roam down roads and through backyards, but everyone seems to know who owns which pig...

Paul: In a way, that could be a metaphor for Tongan society. On the surface it appears casual, even chaotic, but there is a pattern, there are rules, rules which are at first hidden to outsiders...

[Posted by Maps/Scott]


Anonymous Scott said...

I think that the argument about tapu mentioned in this post probably needs to be made a bit more nuanced.

If I remember rightly, then Tongan Ark shows Michael Horowitz, the American sociologist and former director of 'Atenisi, saying something along the lines of "Futa recognised that in Polynesian societies tapu is used as a way of reinforcing the power of the ruling group". Opeti Taliai, the anthropologist and graduate of 'Atenisi, is shown expressing similar sentiments.

I think that Horowitz's statement can be considered either empirically, as a claim about the present and past of Polynesian societies, or philosophically, as a claim about the way reality is perceived in those societies.

Horowitz seems to have meant his words to be an empirical statement, but 'Okusi Mahina seems to have disagreed with them on a philosophical level.

If we consider Horowitz's statement empirically we can find a good deal of evidence for it. It is undeniable that in Tonga and in many other Polynesian societies tapu became, to a large extent, a tool to justify and protect the privileges of a ruling elite.

Tonga's earliest settlers, the Lapita people, appear to have had a relatively egalitarian society, but over centuries and millenia, as agriculture developed and political authority was concentrated, a strong distinction between chiefs and commoners emerged.

By the time Cook arrived in the late eighteenth century, Tonga had many of the features of the sort of feudal society which existed in medieval Europe. A small landowner class kept apart from the mass of the people, to which it had no recognised blood ties, and claimed religious authority for its privileges. An hereditary priest-king called the Tu'i Tonga presided over fertility rites, and bestowed his blessing on the landowning nobility.

All sorts of tapu separated the Tongan elite from commoners. Tasks which were considered base, like the disposal of waste, the preparation of food, and agricultural labour, were made into the subject of various tapu. As the most tapu figure of all, the Tu'i Tonga was not allowed even to touch most of his fellow humans. He lived in splendid seclusion at a godhouse in the holy city of Mu'a.

The distinction between commoners and the elite persisted after death. Nobles had souls which went to the underworld of Pulotu after death, but commoners would return as mosquitoes, or other lowly creatures.

Although Tupou the first, the founder of modern Tonga, campaigned against traditional tapu, smashing up the godhouses and mixing more freely with commoners, it can be argued that aspect of the old system of prohibitions insinuated their way into the new religion of Christianity, and into the public rituals of modern Tonga.

The extreme reverence which many Tongans feel for church buildings and grounds, for graveyards, and for the Sabbath are one sign of the persistence of tapu. It is not unusual for Tongans to respond to a sickness in the family by visiting a cemetery and cleaning the graves of their ancestors. There is a persistent belief that the neglect of graves, or any sort of desecration of church property, will inevitably bring malign consequences.

It can be argued that the Tongan elite, in the form of the country's aristocracy-cum-capitalist class, has used tapu to reinforce its authority and discredit its enemies. Because he is the head of Tonga's state church, the king has some of the qualities of the old Tu'i Tonga. To offend against him is to offend against God. Michael Field has reported seeing Tongans literally crawling before the king and other nobles, in an acknowledgement of their semi-sacred status. Futa Helu's frank criticism of Tonga's elite and his apparent failure to attend church regularly were often presented by his enemies as violations of tapu [continued in next comment]

12:59 am  
Anonymous Scott said...


But even if tapu is used by Tonga's elite to reinforce their power and privilege, it is not clear that tapu was the main reason for the emergence of a highly stratified society in Tonga, rather than merely a byproduct of the emergence of such a society.

Horowitz talks in Tongan Ark about tapu being a tool of the elite in Polynesian societies in general, but if we look around Polynesia we can see that the existence of tapu is not necessarily correlated with the existence of a highly stratified society. There are a number of Polynesian societies which are or were egalitarian, and at least some of them had very developed concepts of tapu.

The Moriori society of the Chatham Islands, for instance, made little distinction between chief and commoner, and yet paid great attention to tapu. After two Taranaki iwi invaded the Chathams in 1835, they demoralised the Moriori by descecrating tapu sites. Realising that Moriori saw cooking as an unclean activity, the newcomers announced their hostile intent by placing a cooking pot on a sacred hilltop.

If tapu is a cause of social hierarchy, as Horowitz seems to suggest in Tongan Ark, why wasn't pre-1835 Moriori society hierarchical? And if tapu's essential role becomes the safeguarding of the privileges of an elite, as Horowitz also seems to suggest, why does tapu exist in Moriori culture, or in the cultures of other egalitarian Polynesian peoples, like the Pukapukans and the Takuu islanders?

The observation that tapu serves the interests of the Tongan elite is reasonable, but it does need at least some qualification, because there have been and continue to be occasions when tapu is deployed as a weapon against that elite.

The epic struggle in the 1950s of the people of Niuafo'ou to resettle their home island, in the face of opposition from Queen Salote and Prince Tungi and the rest of the Tongan elite, offers an example of the use of tapu by a marginalised section of society.

The Niuafo'ouans had been evacuated en masse from their island in the far north of the kingdom after it erupted, and resettled on the much cooler and less hospitable southern island of 'Eua. While some of the Niuafo'ouans made a new life on 'Eua, hundreds campaigned to return to their homeland in the years after the eruption. They justified their defiance of the Tongan state by pointing out that their ancestors were buried on Niuafo'ou, and that they would be failing in their ritual duties to the dead if they did not return home.

It is also worth noting that in pre-modern Tonga tapu offered one of the very few opportunities for commoners to escape from their work in the fields and achieve a certain social prestige. A man or woman who demonstrated a connection with the spiritual world - who was able to enter a shamanic trance, and channel a deity, or utter prophecy - might be regarded as tapu, and sent to live, in a certain amount of luxury, in one of the godhouses scattered over Tonga's larger islands. Nobles and commoners alike would visit the godhouses to get instructions and predictions. Commoners who might never otherwise talk to a chief would be listened to attentively and, often, obeyed.

The social mobility created by religion in pre-modern Tonga and the use of tapu-based arguments by groups like the Niuafo'ouans in the modern era suggest that we can't assume that tapu is always and a tool of the Tongan elite.

This comment has been long enough, so I'll talk about what I see as the philosophical aspects of the debate about tapu at another time!

1:03 am  
Blogger Paul Janman said...

I think you have found the most provocative touchstone of Futa Helu's ideas in the concept of tapu.

Horowitz's actual words in the film are that "Futa located where oppression begins in Polynesia" (in tapu). This statement is both contentious and provocative but it doesn't mean that there is any 'philosophically' or even 'empirically' necessary link between tapu and oppression. It does, however, point to a certain potentiality in the concept and the practice.

One of Futa's great epiphanies as a student of the Australian Realist John Anderson in Sydney was that the idea of the sacred was a kind of 'cover-up for special demands'. In this way, the special demands of governing or priestly classes on their flocks are enforced by means of an idea which always contains within it an implicit threat of violence.

Futa was careful to qualify his statements about tapu, particularly as he was an active participant in Tongan society and thus bound by a certain need to speak indirectly but there is little doubt that his main intention was always to criticise or 'pick apart' the concept.

He was also highly aware of tapu's positive epistemological and aesthetic components. In Tongan Ark he says "tapu can of course be beneficial, in some cases, but it is really dangerous... to the gullible".

Most of all, Futa was an educator with a somewhat Eurocentric bias and the idea that 'there are some stones that should not be overturned' was deeply abhorrent to him. He rejected anything, which stopped enquiry in its tracks. Societal restrictions on curiosity and criticism were always his biggest problems in keeping his school alive for over 45 years.

In this way, I think Tongan Ark speaks as much to modern global societies, with their various restrictive cults and technical fetishes, as it does to the Tongan world.

9:18 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

Thanks for giving me the actual quote from Horowitz, Paul!

I don't see, though, how we can't interpret his words as a claim that tapu is a key cause of oppression in Polynesia. Since social stratification is a necessary condition of oppression -you can't oppress anyone if you don't have power over him or her -
Horowitz's statement also suggests that tapu is a cause of stratification.

Perhaps, for the purposes of clarification, we could compare Horowitz's claim about tapu to the claim that Christianity lies at the heart of capitalism.

The Protestant variant of Christianity, with its focus on hard work and the accumulation of personal worth, undoubtedly facilitated the rise of capitalism, and the emergence of capitalism in the developing world has often been linked to the implantation of Christianity there. But that doesn't mean that Christianity always comes wrapped in capitalism, or that it can't even, in certain contexts, be an impediment to the smooth operation of capitalism.

And if we understood capitalism as mainly the product of Christianity, we would be missing the fact that capitalism has its own dynamic, its own laws of motion. It is not created and sustained primarily by an ideology like Christianity, but by forces in what Marx called the material 'base' of society - economic and social forces.

In much the same way, tapu is far more pervasive and complex than Horowitz's statement suggests, and the emergence of stratification in Tonga has to be understood primarily (though not, of course, exclusively) in relation to the 'base' of Tongan society, not to ideology.

And scholars of Polynesian history like Patrick Vinton Kirch have for some time been pursuing a materialist explanation for social structure and change in Tonga, as they excavate ancient sites, investigate ancient irrigation systems, calculate ancient demographic pressures and probable harvest yields, trace the emergence of class distinctions through changes in the way the dead were buried, and so on. Horowitz's statement is, in the light of this sort of work, too simplistic.

Having said all that, I do like the role Horowitz plays in the film, and I think some of the statements he makes - his criticisms of education in the West's universities, for example - are right on the money. Even if I disagree with his claim about tapu, I'm pleased he made it, because he got me (and, it seems, others) thinking...

11:01 am  
Anonymous staunch mormon said...

The Polynesians buried their kin so they will take their final trip to the blissful Pulotu.

The opposite of Pulotu is "Sa le Fe'e" (sacred place of the octopus god), the Samoan version of Hell.

The tree and water of Pulotu reminds me of a story in the Book of Mormon.

"And it came to pass that I beheld a tree, whose fruit was desirable to make one happy. And it came to pass that I did go forth and partake of the fruit thereof; and I beheld that it was most sweet, above all that I ever before tasted. Yea, and I beheld that the fruit thereof was white, to exceed all the whiteness that I had ever seen. And as I partook of the fruit thereof it filled my soul with exceedingly great joy; wherefore, I began to be desirious that my family should partake of it also; for I knew that it was desirable above all other fruit. And as I cast my eyes round about, that perhaps I might discover my family also, I beheld a river of water; and it ran along, and it was near the tree of which I was partaking the fruit. And I looked to behold from whence it came; and I saw the head thereof a little way off; and at the head thereof I beheld your mother Sariah, and Sam, and Nephi; and they stood as if they knew not whither they should go. And it came to pass that I beckoned unto them; and I also did say unto them with a loud voice that they should come unto me, and partake of the fruit, which was desirable above all other fruit. And it came to pass that they did come unto me and partake of the fruit also. And it came to pass that I was desirous that Laman and Lemuel should come and partake of the fruit also, wherefore, I cast mine eyes towards the head of the river, that perhaps I might see them. And it came to pass that I saw them, but they would not come unto me and partake of the fruit. And I beheld a rod of iron, and it extended along the bank of the river, and led to the tree by which I stood. And I also beheld a strait and narrow path, which came along by the rod of iron, even to the tree by which I stood; and it also led by the head of the fountain, unto a large and spacious field, as if it had been a world. And I saw numberless concourses of people, many of whom were pressing forward, that they might obtain the path which led unto the tree by which I stood. And it came to pass that they did come forth, and commence in the path which led to the tree. And it came to pass that there arose a mist of darkness; yea, even an exceedingly great mist of darkness, insomuch that they who had commenced in the path did lose their way, that they wandered off and were lost. And it came to pass that I beheld others pressing forward, and they came forth and caught hold of the end of the rod of iron; and they did press forward through the mist of darkness, clinging to the rod of iron, even until they did come forth and partake of the fruit of the tree." (Lehi's Dream, Book of Mormon, 1 Nephi 8: 10 - 24)

11:23 am  
Blogger Paul Janman said...

Yes Scott... um, Book of Mormon aside for a minute... (see what we're dealing with here?)

I have to agree that Horowitz's statement is a bit blanketing and too simplistic about the nature of tapu in Polynesia at large. If you put it in the particular social and economic context that Futa inhabited, however - a very specific time and space - you start to see its relevance.

Futa's school was subverted for decades because people were afraid to ask certain questions in Tonga. Tapu played an important enough causal role in that situation that Futa Helu veered away from it, even when he was well aware of its beneficial aspects.

Horowitz has picked up Futa's baton and some of his intentional biases. Unfortunately he is a palangi and so his statement on tapu seems more problematic. Still, I think he represents Futa's actual views pretty accurately and knowing Futa, there were good socio-historical reasons for those original views.

10:19 pm  
Blogger ardis said...

What I'm getting here is that tapu can be a lever for stratification and oppression. However if tapu hadn't been a key meme in Polynesia, there could still have been stratification and oppression.

My point: there's a clear difference between a cause and an occasion. You might as well call testosterone 'a key cause of oppression in Polynesia.'

4:20 am  
Anonymous Michael Horowitz said...

My good friend Paul Janman (who is on his way to becoming a great kiwi artist) grants that I represent Futa Helu's suspicion of tapu "pretty accurately". Indeed, Futa recounted to me that at the University of Sydney, he suddenly realised that "tapu is merely a set a commands", with ensuing clarification that the commands originate from hegemonic elites in Polynesia. This discovery was paralleled by yet another great Tongan intellectual, Epeli Hau'ofa, who wrote unequivocally in 1987 that in some parts of Polynesia "... traditions are used by the ruling classes to enforce the new order". (citation online)

Paul concedes, however, that because I'm palangi, conveying such broadsides becomes "problematic". There's certainly no doubt that, on certain issues, being palangi limits one's influence in Tonga. But what was refreshing about Futa Helu was he never appeared distracted by the fact I was reared in New York City. In any given dialogue, he seemed only concerned with the logic and evidence substantiating the hypothesis.

8:29 pm  
Blogger Sensa said...

Thank you for this informed discussion. I look forward to one day seeing the film itself.

11:31 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you very much...perhaps one day I'll get to see the I know some of "Tapu" aspects in Polynesia, especially Tonga...

5:14 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This movie sounds good, when can we see it.

12:39 am  
Blogger Paul Janman said...

Tongan Ark will have its World Premiere as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival at Sky City Theatre on August 4th at 4.15 pm.

Included is a live performance by the 'Atenisi Foundation for Performing Arts and a free panel discussion, performance and drinks at the Civic Wintergarden afterwards. Tickets go on sale this Friday. Discounted group bookings are available.

Follow us on facebook:

See also the Tongan Ark website:

Hope to see you all there. Malo! Paul

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