Saturday, December 08, 2012

Apologies to Vaughan; congrats to brief and to Tusi Tamasese

I assured several people, including a man with the initials VR, that a review of Vaughan Rapatahana's fascinating new volumes Home, Away, Elsewhere and china as kafka was going to appear here this week. The review hasn't, in fact, turned up, thanks to a bout of ill-health and to the skills of Bronwyn Lloyd, the editor of the latest issue of the Kiwi literary journal brief.

With the insight and subtlety of the best editors, Bronwyn juxtaposed a poem by Vaughan with an essay by Jack Ross about Paul Celan when she compiled brief 46. Called 'he whatinga', Vaughan's poem laments the fact that its author 'can't exist' in the 'hybrid bastard' of the English language. As though to prove the point that he can't express himself properly in an English-language poem, Vaughan adds a footnote to his text:

give me a flexible language language, with sensible words, give, give, give me an escape from this prison of English 

As Jack explains in the essay which follows Vaughan's poem, Paul Celan was a man tormented by the fact that he could only write poetry in German, the language of the nation that during World War Two invaded his homeland of Romania and destroyed his family. Bronwyn's inspired juxtaposition made me see that the broken syntax, serrated lines, and neologisms which are part of both Celan's and Rapatahana's work have similar justifications. Both men have struggled to express themselves in a language they distrust. I decided to rewrite my review of Vaughan's books, so as to bring out the unexpected parallels with Celan. Health and nappy changing duties permitting, I hope to post my overdue review here early next week. Apologies Vaughan! Ae e fakapikopiko!
The good news is that brief is set to push on towards its half-century, thanks to a grant of five thousand two hundred dollars announced this week by Creative New Zealand. The grant, which follows similar contributions in 2010 and 2011, won't make anybody wealthy, but it does give brief's heroic managing editor Michael Arnold a chance to balance the books, and it allows Alex Wild, who is at this very moment preparing the 47th issue of the journal, to be paid a small but symbolic fee.

Regular readers of this blog may recognise Alex as the wunderkid who, in the first quarter century of her life, managed to write a Masters' thesis about Samoan history, publish a very fine novel about frustrated Bohmenian love in inner-city Auckland, and begin a PhD thesis about the sex lives of twentieth century Germans. Alex also finds time to post witty messages on social media, and she left this appeal for contributions to brief 47 on Facebook:

Don't forget, all you genius friends of mine - I'm accepting contributions for the issue of Brief which I'm guest-editing. Stories, poems, essays, experiments, drawings, whatever. I'm calling the whole issue 'The Mid City Arcade Project' and a whole bunch of rad submissions are already in and I'm excited cos it's all starting to look like the components of a pretty sweet collation of papers you'd like to keep in your room for a long time and then someone will steal it at a cool party you one day decide to host in your room and you'll be bummed out but generally ok cos at least distribution is important with things on bits of paper. You can and should email submissions to me at

Unless you get those submissions in quickly you may miss Alex's deadline, but they can always be saved for the eyes of the editor of issue no. 48, who has not, so far as I am aware, been appointed. I hear Ross Taylor is looking for some low-stress work over the next few months.

As a lover of Samoa, Alex Wild would have been delighted by Tusi Tamasese's string of victories at the New Zealand Film Awards last week. Tamasese's The Orator is much more than an affecting drama about an outsider's attempt to claim the place he deserves in a labyrinthine social order: it is one of the very first films to draw on the storehouse of ancient concepts which together make up the intellectual horizon of Western Polynesia, and which were repressed for more than a century by colonial administrators and certain well-meaning but Eurocentric ethnographers.

In recent decades important Pacific intellectuals like Epeli Hau'ofa, Futa Helu and 'Okusitino Mahina have called for the recovery and theorising of the old world-view. Hau'ofa insisted that the Pacific was too often seen as a waste of water, rather than a highway between complex civilisations; Helu contrasted the collectivism of traditional Tongan art with what he considered the excessive individualism of Romantic and existentialist European art; Mahina has written about the importance of concepts like 'uta, or inland space, in traditional thinking.

Tusi Tamasese has very gracefully adapted this sort of theorising to cinema. By refusing ever to turn his cameras on the sea, he has broken with the colonialist view of the Pacific as a series of sandy beaches, and made audiences feel both the complexity and occasional claustrophobia of the universe of rural Samoa. By shunning close-ups in favour of shots of groups of actors, he has broken with the cult of the individual hero which is such a part of modern Western art, and emphasised instead the primacy of the social. By forsaking the frenetic cuts and pointless action of twenty-first century Hollywood, he has slowed his movie to a pace that is hypnotic rather than soporific, and given audiences a taste of the different way time and space are constructed in the hinterlands of Western Polynesia, where what EP Thompson famously called the 'work-discipline' of 'industrial capitalism' has never properly been imposed.

To find a film which can compare to The Orator, we have to turn to John O'Shea's Runaway, which premiered all the way back in 1964. By discovering a way of putting the New Zealand landscape on celluloid, and in the process junking the unsuitable models which earlier auteurs like Rudall Hayward had used, O'Shea opened up territory which the best subsequent Kiwi film makers have been able to explore and adumbrate. The Orator does for Western Polynesia what O'Shea did for the Shaky Isles.
Another important film set in Western Polynesia, Paul Janman's Tongan Ark, has also received praise over the past few days. Tongan Ark tells the story of the 'Atenisi Institute, the independent-minded school sited on the swampy fringe of Nuku'alofa, and last week it was shown repeatedly at the Institute, to audiences which reputedly included the Prime Minister of Tonga and his retinue.

At the same time that was Janman was projecting his movie onto a screen improvised from the back of an old banner, Giovanni Tiso, who saw Tongan Ark at Wellington's film festival Wellington a few months ago, was writing a review for the website of the venerable Australian cultural journal Overland. Futa Helu founded 'Atenisi after returning to a quiescent Tonga from Sydney University filled with classical philosophy and the contrarian impulses of the Scots-Aussie academic gadfly John Anderson. Now, almost half a century later, is the spirit of critical thinking and critical education returning to Australia from Tonga?

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Did the PM like the film?

If so is the film bad?

Because the PM sucks.

6:55 pm  
Blogger Paul Janman said...

The PM apparently said that he liked the film. But then he would wouldn't he? Seeing as it deals with the democracy struggle, the biggest popular uprising in recent Tongan history and Futa Helu's 'Institute of the People'.

Public Films salutes Tusi Tamasese's historic win at the awards (that we forgot to enter - maybe next year ay?)

10:15 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

free celan e book

7:37 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

this is weird given celan's battles with language

CELAN is the result of a long development of language policies at EU level. Its direct origin is the Business Platform for Multilingualism.

The project’s principal objective is to facilitate a dialogue in the language field between the business community and language practitioners.

7:42 am  
Blogger Richard said...

Yes Vaughan's poem was good. Interesting beside Jack's annotation to Celan who is very difficult but one can see the parallel. The (virtual?) destruction language(s). Both writers experience writing in language of a culture they feel deeply ambiguous about (I guess)...

The Samoan film looks interesting and I see the maker talks strongly about language an meaning so there is a clear link.

I tried to learn Samoan years ago and
also Maori. The trouble is that our language learing ability is very good when we are (well infants or children) but we lose that ability. But I learnt some words and some approximate pronounciation. Samoan (and Tongan I suppose) unlike Maori uses the glottal stop which shouldn't be hard for Cockneys (! e.g. bu'n for button) but others find it very hard.

Futa Helu is a man of real importance in the world.

11:19 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Scott:
I am a historian and I am trying to contact you regarding a question I have about E.P. Thompson.
Would you please send me your contact information to this address?
I will truly appreciate it.
(I'm reading your book on EPT and enjoying it very much).

4:32 pm  
Blogger Dr Jack Ross said...

It was Farrell Cleary who persuaded me to give The Orator a go (coincidentally, he was also the one who told me that I should check out Theresienstadt while I was in the Czech Republic ...)

I'm really glad he did. The main actor, Fa'afiaula Sagote, gives one of the most powerful screen performances I've ever seen, and the film overall is powerful and moving - indispensable viewing for all of us Oceanians, I'd have thought.

8:54 am  

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