Floating to Elysium
In most parts of the world Neill Blomkamp's Elysium can still only be viewed on the big screen. Blomkamp released his futuristic shoot 'em up in August, and good box office sales mean that a DVD version isn't due to hit the shops until the Christmas shopping season.
Today, though, I bought a copy of Elysium on DVD for three pa'anga here in Nuku'alofa. I have never seen a legitimate, properly packaged DVD on sale in Nuku'alofa, but I have bought dozens of films - festival documentaries and cult oldies as well as Hollywood blockbusters like Elysium - from shops with names like Dataline DVDs and Sam's Videos.
My favourite Nuku'alofa DVD store offers patrons folders to flick through. On each page of each folder, a film is advertised by a smudged reproduction of a promotional poster or a couple of paragraphs cut out of a review. A patron points to a page and the man or woman behind the counter reaches for a blank DVD, retires to the back of the shop, and makes a copy of the appropriate film. In New Zealand such an insouciant breach of copyright laws would earn a visit from police and a date in court: in Tonga, though, government-issued business licenses hang proudly from the walls of some of the DVD shops, and cops turn up with cash for movies rather than warrants for arrests.
With its German subtitles and the occasional slurred shouts of 'Ja' and 'Nicht' on its soundtrack, my version of Elysium obviously originated in a cinema far from the South Pacific. I don't know whether excitement or boredom was responsible, but the bootlegger must have lost concentration and control of his or her camcorder during the film's frequent fight scenes, when Matt Damon's shining torso, swinging fist and ejaculating rifle all tend to dissolve into a bright blur. Tongans keen to watch Elysium have little choice but to accept these eccentricities: Nuku'alofa's movie theatre burned down during the riot that destroyed a third of the city's business district in 2006.
Blomkamp's movie is set in the year 2054, when pollution and mass unemployment have turned the earth into a series of arenose shantytowns. The super-wealthy have made their homes on Elysium, a miniature planet orbiting the earth where robots serve them champagne as they lie beside swimming pools or wander absent-mindedly through meticulously landscaped parks. Healthcare on earth is crude and scarce, but on Elysium every home has a machine that can detect and cure even the most serious disease in a few seconds. Earthlings pay people smugglers to fly them towards the orbiting heaven in sputtering spacecraft; Elysium's border police respond with missiles.
Elysium may be located in the middle of the twenty-second century, but many reviewers have seen it as a satire of the world of the twenty-first century. Writing in the Irish Times, Donald Clark called the movie a '115 million Marxist polemic'; commenters at Free Republic, a website where the most paranoid members of the American Republican Party gather, have denounced Blomkamp as a propagandist for free public health care and Hispanic 'illegals', and urged a boycott of his film.
Blomkamp's contrast between the green and pleasant world of Elysium and a dry, crowded earth seems ironic in a Pacific context. Tonga is a nation of small, green islands, which sit in the deep blue of the tropical Pacific like planets in the calm of space, but today the most popular destinations for Tongan emigres are the dry and crowded cities of Australia and California. New Zealand is often seen as a route to Sydney or Melbourne or Los Angeles.
Tonga looks like a paradise, but many young Tongans feel imprisoned. On my first visit to the country I spent a few hours propping up the bar at a beach resort, and had the gall to tell the young woman serving me drinks how lucky she was to live amidst such picturesque coconut groves. "I don't want to be here" she snapped. "I am trapped on Tongatapu." She told me how she took drove minivans filled with tourists around the island, using coastal roads. "I go round and round" she said "orbiting Tongatapu, but I never get off."
In his famous essay 'Our Sea of Islands' Epeli Hau'ofa celebrated the Pacific, which he renamed Oceania, as a highway over which peoples like the Tongans travelled and traded, defying the strictures of colonialists and neo-colonialists. For many young Tongans, though, the sea symbolises confinement rather than freedom. Like the trains that tormented early blues musicians by steaming through the countryside of the segregated south without stopping to pick up passengers, the sea simultaneously reminds young Tongans of the outside world and emphasises the distance and indifference of that world.
Last year Kalisolaite 'Uhila, who grew up in Tonga but now lives in West Auckland, locked himself into a metal crate on a gentrified stretch of Wellington's waterfront for four days and nights. 'Uhila lived only on coconuts, and shat and pissed in a small bucket. A CCTV camera monitored him, transmitting its footage to a large screen which stood near his crate.
'Uhila had been invited to contribute to the Wellington Arts Festival, and his performance was intended as a tribute to his uncle, who was one of the hundreds of Tongans who stowed away to New Zealand inside metal crates in the 1970s and '80s. "It was hard being separated from my family, being locked in that small space", the artist told me, when we sat around a kava bowl in Auckland. "One night there was a storm, and the waves and wind were very loud, and I began to think I was lost on the high seas." In an earlier performance in Auckland's Aotea Square, 'Uhila had shared a straw-filled crate with a pig for days on end.
Filipe Tohi, the Tongan sculptor who emigrated to New Zealand as a young man, learned his trade from stonemasons and Maori woodcarvers in the Taranaki, and later returned to his homeland to master the ancient and endangered art of building with coconut fibres. Today Filipe spends most of his time in Auckland, and he has for some years been amassing material for a documentary film about the Tongan stowaways of the '70s and '80s.
In a series of interviews with Filipe, veteran members of Auckland's Tongan community have remembered how they would gather in the Schooner Tavern, across the road from Auckland's docks, and cheer as their compatriots arrived, dripping and grinning, through the pub's big glass door. As his ship eased through the inner Waitemata harbour towards the docks a stowaway would cut a hole in his crate, crawl out and creep across the deck of his ship, leap into the harbour's polluted waters, and swim for the bright lights of Auckland. A jug of Lion Red in the Schooner would help the new arrival recover from his journey.
Today CCTV cameras and foot patrols make ships much harder work for Nuku'alofa's would-be stowaways, and a flight to Auckland or Sydney still costs as much as many Tongans earn in a month. Even if they can afford a plane ticket, many young people are unable to get Australian or New Zealand visas. A single criminal conviction, no matter how minor, is enough to close the doors of both countries.
Some young Tongans try to escape the prison of their homeland imaginatively rather than physically. Recently a couple of 'Atenisi students led me down Railway Road, a series of kava clubs, rickety houses, and burnt-out lots in central Nuku'alofa, and showed me how some of the city's youth spend a hot weekday afternoon. In a dark and cramped room behind a barber's shop, a circle of boys sat amidst clouds of smoke, watching what looked like an episode of Star Trek.
A few metres down the road we found Siua Ongosia, aka Swingman, a brilliant and once-popular rapper who has not performed in public for several years, and now spends almost all his time on Nuku'alofa streetcorners. He often looks drunk, or stoned, or both, and complains of a spinal injury.
Swingman has never set foot outside Tonga, but his mind moves easily around the world. As one of the 'Atenisians aimed a camera at him, the retired rapper pulled a document from his pocket and unfolded it carefully. "This is the Amazon" he smiled, showing us the map. "I always carry it with me. The Amazon is full of oxygen, and warm and moist all the time. I think my spine would be cured there. I want to go there - and I want to go to America, to see the technology." Swingman showed us half a dozen pages covered with tiny handwriting. "This is a poem", he explained, "about the Amazon".
When I told him that 'Atenisi's peforming arts groups was about to tour America, Swingman was impressed. "They are very lucky" he said. "America has the highest technology in the world."
Even if they have to watch a dodgy copy of the film, young Tongans like Swingman will not find it hard to understand Elysium.
Footnote: Kalisolaite 'Uhila and Filipe Tohi are both members of No'o Fakataha, the organisation of Auckland-based Tongan artists which recently put on a group show at the 'Atenisi Institute. If you're living in New Zealand you can watch a report from that exhibition at eleven o'clock on Thursday night on TV One's Tagata Pasfika programme.
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]