Thursday, October 18, 2012

'Atenisi looks ahead

[The forward march of Paul Janman's Tongan Ark, which tells the story of Futa Helu and the university he founded in the swamps of Nuku'alofa, has continued lately, with screenings before appreciative audiences in Mangere, Christchurch, and Hamilton, and a rave review from Peter Calder in the New Zealand Herald

Paul is taking his film to Auckland's Central Art Gallery and to the Wellington Film Archive later this month, and Briar March, the creator of a remarkable documentary about the tiny and endangered Polynesian atoll of Takuu, is rumoured to be organising a showing in a perilous location on Auckland's wild west coast. Next month Paul will be taking Tongan Ark home, by holding an open air screening of the film in Nuku'alofa. That should be a night to remember. 

Tongan Ark ends in 2010, when Futa Helu's death placed the future of 'Atenisi in jeopardy. It is good to be able to record that 'Atenisi has weathered the crisis of Helu's passing, and is now looking forward to the future with confidence. This press release, which is being distributed to audiences of Tongan Ark, describes 'Atenisi's plans for 2013. Who else feels like a little study and some kava drinking in the winterless north?]

Tonga's unique 'Atenisi Institute looks forward to 2013

Tonga's 'Atenisi Institute is preparing for a busy and productive 2013, as it benefits from a wave of positive publicity.

Founded by the philosopher Futa Helu in 1963, 'Atenisi, whose name is Tongan for Athens, is the only tertiary institution in the Pacific which is independent of both state and religious authority. 'Atenisi has trained some of Tonga's most distinguished intellectuals, and been at the heart of the country's pro-democracy movement.

Because of its unusual, relaxed ambience, its involvement in important political and social struggles, and its emphasis on creating a dialogue between Polynesian and European traditions, 'Atenisi has over the years also attracted many important palangi intellectuals and artists as teachers and supporters.

Thousands of Kiwis have learned about the existence of the 'Atenisi Institute for the first time this year, thanks to Paul Janman's acclaimed documentary film Tongan Ark, which tells the story of Futa Helu and the school he founded. Tongan Ark played to capacity audiences at the New Zealand International Film Festival, and is now in demand at academic conferences and community festivals around the country. In a review published recently in the New Zealand Herald, Peter Calder called Janman's film 'absorbing', and described Futa Helu's ideas as 'thrillingly fresh'.

The Atenisi Foundation for Performing Arts has capitalised on the success of Tongan Ark by touring New Zealand and giving shows which blend European and Tongan music and dance.

This year has also seen the publication in New Zealand of a selection of Futa Helu's essays about poetry, and an extended discussion of his life and thought in a special issue of one of New Zealand's leading literary journals.

The new interest in 'Atenisi and Futa Helu reflects their relevance in the twenty-first century. Paul Janman argues that 'Atenisi's interest in blending Polynesian and European thinking and culture "appeals to people looking for a model of healthy biculturalism".

The sociologist and novelist Dr Michael Horowitz, who has taught for years at 'Atenisi, says that the institution contrasts pleasantly with some of the large-scale, business-focused universities in his native America. 'Atenisi is a small university in a poor country, but I feel free here, because I can teach free from commercial imperatives" Horowitz says. "The small classes and dialogues with students around the kava bowl make me feel I'm back in ancient Greece, in the school of Socrates or Plato. 'Atenisi is a cultural as well as intellectual experience."

In 2013 Dr 'Opeti Taliai will take up the post of Dean of 'Atenisi. After getting an undergraduate degree from 'Atenisi, Taliai went on to earn a PhD in anthropology from Massey University and to teach at both Massey. "Futa Helu was my first and greatest teacher" 'Opeti says. "He cracked open the shell of my mind and taught me to think critically. I want to carry on that tradition."

Under the leadership of Dr Taliai, 'Atenisi will be offering courses in the history and sociology of the Pacific, Tongan language, dance, and literature, Greek and European philosophy, and other subjects. "I believe 'Atenisi has an unusual combination of qualities" Dr Taliai says. "We are positioned in the heart of Polynesia, but we are open to the intellectual traditions of Europe. We are passionate about both Polynesian culture and the sort of critical thinking that the ancient Greeks practiced."

Dr Taliai has recruited a number of new teachers, including the sociologist and cultural and political commentator Dr Scott Hamilton. Hamilton did his PhD at the University of Auckland, and his thesis, which considered the work of the English thinker EP Thompson, was issued last year by Manchester University Press. Hamilton will combine his duties at 'Atenisi with research into Tonga's rich intellectual heritage.

"'Atenisi appeals to me in a way that larger, much better-funded universities don't" Hamilton says. "The huge role the institution has played in changing Tongan society is an inspiring example of the effect intellectuals can have in the real world. Tonga is right next door to New Zealand, yet a lot of palangi Kiwi intellectuals haven't been aware of what it has to offer. That should change."

'Atenisi's academic year begins in February, with enrolment and orientation. Lectures begin on February the 25th, and the first semester ends in mid-June. Enrolment for second semester classes is scheduled for the 15th to the 19th of July, and the second semester runs from the 22nd of July until the 28th of November.

For information on enrolling at 'Atenisi contact Sisi'uno Langi-Helu at

To watch parts of Tongan Ark and see where the film is showing, visit and facebook


Anonymous Anonymous said...

is this some kind of muslim thing.

7:54 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'd go. But no kava.

8:33 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Scott who is Dr. Hamilton?

Good on you for getting into that - but hopefully no more dengue fever etc?

As long as you can keep well, though, go for it!

12:05 am  
Anonymous Scott said...

Hi Richard,

it should be fun! You and a few other Titus/briefers ought to come up and give talks/readings in 2013! Ted is quite keen, though he's lost in the Greek revolution at the moment.

Sisi'uno Helu gives this talk at 'Atenisi in a day or so - I imagine it'd intrigue you:

'Atenisi Public Lecture Series
Date: 22nd October 2012
Topic: The weaknesses of the Tongan Musical Notation
Koe vaivai'anga hono ako'i e musika 'aki e nota fakatonga
Speaker: Sisiuno Helu
Time: 8pm@Lolo Masi Building, 'Atenisi Institute
Free Admission

3:09 am  
Anonymous mr turtle said...

arabs in tonga? weird...

5:46 pm  

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