From my lounge to the big time
There's a long road from my lounge, with its piles of half-read books and its artfully stained couches and its dinky pre-digital television, to the Sky City and Civic theatres, with their plush seats and vast screens and intricate sound systems. It has only taken six or so months, though, for Paul Janman and his movie Tongan Ark to make the journey from a shabby suburban room to the film temples of central Auckland.
Last January Paul hung a white bedsheet on the wall of my lounge and aimed an early version of Tongan Ark at it, while half a dozen or so of my dodgy mates nibbled sausages and pork chops and sipped beers.
Now Tongan Ark has been accepted for this year's Auckland International Film Festival, and will screen on August the 4th at the seven-hundred-seat Sky City Theatre. Paul plans to hold a post-screening function featuring opera singers, dancers, anthropologists, and poets in the Civic Theatre's lustrous Wintergarden lounge (check out that poster for more details). Paul's film has also been selected for Wellington's International Film Festival, which is held a little later in August.
After deciding to tell the story of the 'Atenisi Institute, a private university built in Tonga by the visionary intellectual and pro-democracy campaigner Futa Helu, Paul shot hundreds of hours of film. He managed to get hours of interviews of Helu in the can before the great man died in 2010, he talked to other staff and to students at 'Atenisi, and he shot a whole hour of electrifying footage after being caught up in the riot that levelled much of downtown Nuku'alofa in November 2006.
And Paul didn't only have his own footage to draw on: while working at 'Atenisi he discovered piles of VHS cassettes mouldering in a cupboard there. After taking these ancient artefacts home and cleansing them of cockroaches and dust he discovered music, poetry, and dance by the 'Atenisi Foundation for Performing Arts, as well as old graduation ceremonies full of oratory and laughter.
Although Paul had held a successful preview of Tongan Ark at the Auckland Film Archive near the end of 2011, he was still spending hours in the cutting room at the beginning of 2012, and he wasn't ready to accept all of the praise that was offered to his film after its lounge room debut. Paul was worried about the length of Tongan Ark.
Now and then a very long film makes a splash. Last year, for instance, a group of Helsinki artists won plaudits after their movie Modern Times Forever, which runs for ten full days, was played at a local film festival. Paul, though, doubts that Kiwis have the patience of Finns, who after all are used to waiting out weeks of midwinter darkness and symphonies by Sibelius, and has worked hard to reduce his film to what he considers a watchable length. The version of Tongan Ark he showed on my lounge room wall was shorter than the version which had played at the Film Archive; the version which has been accepted for the Auckland Film Festival is tighter still.
I must admit to having mixed feelings about Paul's success in breaking into Auckland's film fest. The generous part of me is delighted for him, but my selfish side is annoyed at the extra work he's causing me.
Early this year I helped Titus Books get funding from Creative New Zealand to publish a volume of Futa Helu's essays about Tongan poetry. I'd spotted Helu's essays in an old magazine called Fai Kava, and had thought they'd make an excellent introduction not just to traditional Tongan verse but to Helu's ideas about the necessity of culture-crossing and the superiority of the 'play of the mind' over dogmatic thinking. I loved the way that the essays leaped without warning from Polynesia to Europe, as Helu invoked one of his beloved Greek philosophers, or compared an ancient Tongan poet to Milton or Blake.
After Creative New Zealand had given On Tongan Poetry the thumbs up, Titus boss Brett Cross had planned to bring the book out near the end of the year. Once Paul's film cracked the festival, though, Sisi'uno Helu, Futa's daughter and literary executor, felt that it would be nice to have the book in August. Brett agreed with her, and for the last week or so I've been scrambling to help him prepare Helu's texts for publication by hunting down typos, commissioning forewords and a cover, and tidying up my 2010 essay about 'Atenisi so that it can act as a sort of afterword.
With Brett cracking the whip, On Tongan Poetry will be available at that Wintergarden function on the evening of August the fourth. We hope that it will complement Tongan Ark, and help to introduce more Kiwis to Futa Helu. We'll see you at that Wintergarden kava bowl...
[Posted by Maps/Scott]