Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The perils of blurbing

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 magazine.

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]


Anonymous libcom said...

as i said at the time...a film for the intellectual OR PSEUDINTELLECTUAL elite...not for workers...eh?

janman's comeback then was to insult the working class. has he listed his game??

as for debates about the film...tame debates at a film festival for elite cultural wankers do not count.

true debate takes place IN FRONT OF THE CLASS.

3:04 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

libcom, i think it is you insulting the working class. Of course we go to film festivals - thats where I first saw this great film. It has since had repeat screenings in working-class areas. Open your mind! - Hamish.

3:15 pm  
Anonymous Cliche Hunt Continues! said...

'Riot erupts': tssk tssk, cliche!

3:58 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

I don't see this film as an attack on the working class. It is an interesting movie showing an innovative University in Tonga and thus a section of NZ's working class. There is an interest in literature, philosophy, the arts and sciences, as well as song. But it is no stuffy thing. The people portrayed laugh a lot and are also serious. The people there are not particularly more "intellectual" than anyone else. Working class but also Tongan - more widely Pacific. It is an interesting film which is better for its more or less "raw" nature. It is reality without the usual crap associated with say Hollywood reality films. It is very vivid and unusual, even sometimes almost surreal, but real enough. It is what it is.

7:20 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Libcom. Always great to hear from self-appointed people's representatives.

Nice blurb, Scott. You caption the essence of the film well. A while back, I was employed to write captions for a richly illustrated history book. Describing the image, while incorporating the pics into the book's broader narrative, was a really difficult task. I quickly learnt that the ability to distill the essence of topic into a few sentences (or in your case, paragraphs) requires intimate knowledge of the subject matter.


5:02 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Libcom is ironic?

10:08 am  
Anonymous Scott Hamilton said...

Anonymous Cliche Hunt Continues! said...
'Riot erupts': tssk tssk, cliche!

Yup. A bad one!

2:12 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

Hi Richard,

I think that the unusual subject matter of the film gives Paul a big head start. Even if Tongan Ark were badly constructed, which it isn't, the film would be essential viewing, because of its enormous extrinsic value. It brings a new world to the screen. No one has captured Tongan intellectual life, nor even the Tongan landscape, on film before in a determined way.

Hi Ryan,

interesting to see your account of the difficulties of mixing text and image (would love to know the name of the book you were working on, by the way), because I'm going to try to do a similar thing as I put this book about the blasted Great South Road together with Paul and Ian. The relationships between images and words can sometimes, I think, be testy...

2:16 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Yes it has value in itself and, extrinsically and intrinsically for the larger themes etc It is unusual. It doesn't impose on those filmed or try to persuade us of some wonderful or bad thing. It just shows this fascinating experiment, or to be more precise, this thing happening at Atenisi where the 'learning' has either inherent or a 'practical' value and it simply shows. The woman singing opera is something happening. Futa Helu is just there, he doesn't tell anyone what to do. There is a relaxed but serious tenor to it all. It is a new thing.

It isn't made to entertain people who want Hollywood bullshit and shows a view of the creative and intellectual side of Tonga. It doesn't preach, yet it is indeed focused more on the 'working class' if one wants to classify.

But it goes beyond any prescriptions such as Marxism or some 'University' or 'academic' theory, and we are in a world where the philosophies of humans who had much the same issues as Tongans and all of us still have (in one parallel the Greeks themselves were often living on Islands, and many had migrated). There is no one less arrogant or less 'academic' (in the sense that lib worries about) than Paul Janman or Echo. Yet they are onto it, as are others who went out there later. Even the eccentric Dutch mathematician has a good place (unless he was expunged)...But one feels that the scene is relatively open.

It would be naive to say we are witnessing a great new intellectual leap and everyone was enlightened. It is all there. It is a slice of time and place.

6:02 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

Hi Richard,

I saw Paul today and he told me he was getting a few orders for the DVD: most were coming from palangi rather than Tongans. He'd had an instructor at a leading American pay for a copy of the DVD, and for the right to show it to classes; I thought that was encouraging. Independent film making certainly isn't a lucrative business, though!

7:00 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Yes. That is good. Be good if more Tongans bought it although they might see it in a different light, and in varying lights so to speak. There is no harm in getting funding from the Govt. or the Council to do books or films. One has to have the energy of course!

I think there is a place for the 'unusual art film' though with a specialisation (say socio or psycho geography etc) of say Gt South Road, or Atenisi, as eventually it will get known. "Reality shows" have probably started to lose their superficial interest...As time goes by some undoubtedly legendary things will happen (the advantage that the better "Hollywood" films have).

7:09 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The book was Tangata Whenua, by Binney, Anderson and Harris. I wrote some captions for Aroha's sections. Ryan.

8:16 pm  
Blogger Paul Janman said...

Thanks for good work as always Scott and the more intelligent commentary. Sales of the film are picking up dramatically among the Tongan audience also. The film is a challenging one because it disrupts a lot of fixed categories - Tongans are generally both elated and disoriented by it, which is a good sign for drama in any form. Some very interesting politics has emerged around the film in the context of anthropological film festivals. It seems that anthropologists have a hard time digesting it for their 'programmes', which is very ironic as they are often the self-styled 'liberators of the indigenous'. Perhaps the confidence and paradox of Futa's cultural appropriations in the context of an extreme lack of material resources may be disruptive of the ideologies that their institutions and careers lean on. We also have some strong supporters in anthropology however - Mike Poltorak at the University of Kent is intending to write about the problem of mainstream visual anthropology in relation to Tongan Ark. I'm looking forward to seeing what he has to say. In the meantime, I am sitting back and enjoying the conflicts! I hope Heraclitus would have been proud.

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