A couple of months ago I got an e mail from a frustrated Paul Janman, who was preparing his feature length documentary film Tongan Ark
for DVD release. Paul had been working hard, and he had almost everything - subtitles, special features, cover design - ready for the manufacturers. But he couldn't, despite hours of effort, come up with a short blurb to slap on the back of his DVD case.
Paul had spent years making Tongan Ark
, had talked about the film repeatedly on television and on the radio, and had travelled with it to festivals around the Pacific. He was bewildered that now, at the final stage of his project, he couldn't find a handful of sentences to sum up his masterpiece.
I volunteered to draft a blurb, thinking that I could finish the task in the time it takes me to write a short e mail, but quickly became as flummoxed as Paul. I filled a couple of pages with words, then realised that I had written far too much, and hadn't described more than the opening scenes of Paul's film. I started again, determined to summarise rather than describe, and soon found myself using the sort of cliches - 'dazzling images', 'piercing insights' and so on - that infest the book and film review sections of Time
I shouldn't have been surprised that it was so difficult to write a blurb for Tongan Ark
Anecdotes I've heard from Masters and Doctoral students, as well as my own painful experiences, suggest to me that the most difficult part of a thesis is the abstract that must precede the text. Thesis writers seem invariably to leave their abstract until last, when the torments of the chapter on theory and the survey of previous literature and the straggling bibliography are out of the way. By then, though, their very familiarity with their subject makes a quick summary of that same subject remarkably difficult.
An abstract or blurb should be like an aerial photograph of a landscape, showing outlines and especially important details - the shape of a coast, the dark sprawl of a town, the bend of a river - and avoiding the cluttered views of the earthbound. By the time they finish their labours, though, writers and film makers too often feel like they are sinking in a swamp of detail, rather than soaring above their subjects.
As long-time readers of this blog will know, I was often involved in promoting Tongan Ark
, and often contributed to the discussions that the film began. I wrote a rambling review
of the rough cut of the movie, hosted a test screening and discussion in my living room
, and sat on a panel organised for the premiere
of the final cut at the 2012 Auckland film festival. Like Paul, I was probably far too familiar with the film.
The normal difficulty created by familiarity was perhaps compounded by the complexity of Tongan Ark
. Like Tongan society, the film is beset by paradoxes, and prone to swift changes of mood. Its hero is an opera fan as well as a connoisseur of traditional Tongan dance, a monarchist and a republican, and an otherworldy aesthete as much as a political activist.
Here is the text that I produced for the back of Tongan Ark
after a good deal of scratching. Paul has coupled my blurb with short quotes from the New Zealand Herald film critic Peter Calder
, and from some bloke named Giovanni Tiso
Tongan Ark is a film about tiny islands and big ideas. It takes us to 'Atenisi, a poor but vibrant university in the Kingdom of Tonga, where the veteran philosopher and opera buff Futa Helu and his talented but eccentric staff teach Greek philosophy alongside Polynesian dance, and advocate both freedom of thought and a concern for tradition.
Helu founded his school to help reform Tongan society, and his work as a social critic has earned him the nickname 'the Socrates of Tonga'. But when a riot erupts outside the school gates, the crises of contemporary Tongan society become the crises of 'Atenisi. State repression, poverty, and violence all threaten the future of Futa Helu's school.
Tongan Ark is a film for the senses, as well as the mind. Director Paul Janman introduces Western audiences to the lush and troubled landscapes of the Kingdom of Tonga, and also to the richness of Tongan intellectual life.
You can buy a DVD copy of Tongan Ark here
. You can watch a trailer for the film here
[Posted by Scott Hamilton]