Monday, August 06, 2012

The Ark premieres: a dog's-eye view

"What a couple of sly old dogs" someone commented, when this photo turned up on facebook yesterday. I'm not sure if that remark was intended as a compliment, but it could have been worse. It is better, I suppose, to be called a sly old dog than a gullible old dog.

The photo shows the hirsute Brett Cross and the less-than-hirsute author of this blog manning a bookstand in the bowels of that monstrous temple to philistinism, the Sky City Centre, last Saturday night. As fruit machines clanged and buzzed and punters howled and barked with glee or disappointment in the distance, we were busy selling On Tongan Poetry, a collection of five essays by the late Futa Helu which Atuanui Press, an offshoot of Brett's Titus Books imprint, has just published with the help of Creative New Zealand. On Tongan Poetry was supposed to arrive in late October, but we brought the release date forward after Tongan Ark, Paul Janman's celluloid portrait of Helu, was accepted for the Auckland International Film Festival. The afterword to On Tongan Ark is a revised version of a post I made to this blog near the end of 2010. We sold On Tongan Poetry alongside two books Helu published near the end of his life - a study of the pre-Socratic philosopher and father of dialectics Heraclitus and a set of short essays in Tongan about the poetry of Salote Tupou III.
I'd like to believe it was a sort of righteous mischievousness which motivated Bill Gosden, the boss of Auckland's International Film Festival, to arrange for Tongan Ark to screen in the Sky City Theatre last Saturday night. Helu was an inveterate critic of the hyper-commercialism and mindless consumerism which are part and parcel of late capitalism, and 'Atenisi, the university he established in a swamp on the edge of Nuku'alofa, has always preferred to teach its students philosophy and poetry rather than business studies. Perhaps, then, Gosden intended the denunciations of 'banal corporate culture' and 'corrupt financial systems' which pepper Tongan Ark to seep through the beige walls of the Sky City Theatre into the cavernous casino nearby, and to inspire the punters there to spend some of their money on books of philosophy and poetry rather than on pokies?

On the other hand, Gosden might simply have been looking for a movie theatre large enough to cope with the appeal of Janman's film. Tongan Ark was watched by a capacity audience of seven hundred; when dancers from the 'Atenisi Foundation for the Performing Arts stormed onstage at the end of the movie, and the crowd rose, clapping, roaring, and stamping its feet, I thought I was at a rock concert rather than a movie.
Tongan Ark has been one of the undisputed hits of this year's Film Festival. While movies by veteran, high-profile directors like Paolo and Vittorio Taviani failed to pack out theatres, Paul Janman's low-budget, unapologetically intellectual film became one of the hottest tickets in town. Part of the Ark's popularity has been due to the heavy media coverage given to Janman and to the 'Atenisi staff and performers who flew in for Nuku'alofa in preparation for the film's premiere. Tongan Ark has been the subject of no fewer than four extended discussions on TV One, as well as profiles on Radio New Zealand and in the Sunday Star-Times.

But the selling of Tongan Ark hasn't only been achieved by exposure in the big media. Enthusiasm for the film has been building amongst Auckland's huge Tongan community for weeks, with volunteers going door to door selling tickets in areas like Otahuhu and Mangere. Pasifika websites and social media have spread the word, and demands to see the movie have flowed in from Sydney, Los Angeles, Salt Lake City, and other colonies of the Tongan diaspora.

Brett Cross and I were sly indeed, then, to hitch our rickety literary wagon to Janman's speeding train. As copies of On Tongan Poetry sailed off our table I was impressed by the diversity of the crowd which had come to see Tongan Ark. There were former staff members and students of 'Atenisi, with their anecdotes about the role of the school as a sort of liberated zone in the tense, autocratic Tonga of the 1980s and '90s; there were young Tongans who had been born in New Zealand and had grown up learning little about their homeland, but who were now proud to learn that Tonga was a land of distinguished intellectuals and poets as well as rugby players and clergymen; there were palangi Kiwis, who had heard about the film through the media, and who wanted to know what Futa Helu could teach them about alternatives to commercialised education or to Western-style capitalism; there were palangi writers who had had their appetites for Tongan literature whetted by the special Oceania issue of brief which appeared earlier this year; and there were veteran scholars of the Pacific like Wendy Pond, the legendary ethnographer and translator who back in the '70s took up residence in the Niuas, the fearsomely isolated island group colonised by Tonga centuries ago but never quite pacified, and who set about translating the work of the dissident local poets she found there.

After the screening of Tongan Ark and the dance by the 'Atenisians, movie-goers reconvened in the Wintergarden lounge of the Civic Theatre. The Civic was built in the late '20s, at a time when the newly-discovered death-mask of Tutankhamun was exciting architects and interior designers around the world, and the lapis lazuli sky and golden walls of the Wintergarden are supposed to evoke the splendours and mysteries of a romantically imagined Orient.

When an 'Atenisi concert party armed with guitars, log drums, and a huge bowl of kava occupied one end of the Wintergarden, though, the room's deep blue desert sky suddenly became the deep blue sky of a tranquil evening in the tropical Pacific. As the guitars played and the voices rose, I forgot about the cold rain blowing outside down the concrete and glass canyon of Queen Street. I could feel a soft humid breeze on my face, and hear the waters of the Fanga'uta Lagoon, the inland sea of Tongatapu, lapping in the distance. When I left the Civic, at the end of the evening, the wind seemed a little milder, and the glass facades of Queen Street a little less oppressive. Tongan Ark and 'Atenisi had brought something important to Auckland.

Wellingtonians should get their tickets, and get ready to party.

Footnote: I've pinched three of the photos in this post from the splendidly monikered Karen Abplanalp, who works for the Pacific Media Centre.
[Posted by Maps/Scott]

8 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

a first review of the book already
http://maryannepale.com/2012/08/05/inspiration-by-the-late-professor-futa-helu/

8:20 am  
Blogger Richard said...

It's great things went well. Good for the Tongan community, Feta Helu and Atenisi, and for Pacific people and things generally. Good work by Paul, yourself, Brett and the others involved.

2:10 pm  
Anonymous Scott said...

I think you'd enjoy meeting Wendy Pond Richard. She has some incredible stories and, apparently, a house full of manuscripts. Check out her 1990 essay on the poetry of the Niuas:
http://journal.oraltradition.org/files/articles/5ii-iii/4_pond.pdf

2:22 pm  
Anonymous hula said...

God dammit Tonga Practising your Language is important their countless fijian out there wanting to learn to speak Tongan it is dieing out in Fiji most have roots leading to Tonga. most of you talk about Samoa this and that but the truth is your real family are wanting to learn how to write and speak it to keep hold of their link to your homeland. im telling you right now there is more Tongan blood in Fiji and in Tonga that has come to a point a lot of fijian also want to speak Tongan and come visit their roots of their forefathers and the same to you .
Your fking forefather didnt come to Fiji for a reason they know this also their home land they also gave Tongan bible to fijian and etc in many villages. you need to also share you culture with fijian if not if going to die out.

7:59 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The first Bible and hymns in Fiji were in Tongan. Many of the faivaz and traditions of Fiji are of Tongan origin. Most of Fiji can trace back their family lines to Tonga.

The root of a culture and its integrity will always start from knowing its language first before anything else. Once Tongan dies out in Fiji, eventually will the rest of its Tongan heritage. Fiji sing polotu aka hiva usu. They do lakalaka and many other things in Tongan. It's amazing watching these Fijians sing our songs and do our faivas. That's because they are Tongan living in a country called Fiji.

Alot of Fiji is Melanesian but most have Tongan in them. If you think about it, we have more links that can be easily identified and verified in Fiji then in any other island group, including Samoa. Oh, and Uvea too! Uvea is pretty much Tonga all the way. Niue sounds so similar to Tonga too!

8:01 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

http://z6.invisionfree.com/European_Union/ar/t2913.htm

8:10 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Yes, sounds very interesting I should have come in and got a book also but I like to come in with Vic and he cant stay out late.

I had a look at a mention of her on an Oral tradition site.

Did she (Pond) translate the poems for the book, I see she did a book also in 2008.

It is interesting to think that for most of human existence on this earth we have not used books. And wasn't really until the 20th Century that many 'ordinary' people read. My grandfather in London last century couldn't read - or wasn't very academically educated - I heard it was his wife who taught him or helped him get more learning although I'm not sure but I have knew quite a few people who couldn't read or write.

E.P Thompson covers some of the early worker education movements or societies in his book "History of the English Working Class.' - I recall that. Also that just for joining such things workers were sometimes considered subversive and deported to Australia etc. I must re-read that classic history of his ...

Dance, the importance of dance - we down play it as men. Dance is a very beautiful or very expressive, and can be a powerful form of expression. A kind of 'language'.

So the oral / visual tradition raises some questions. Where does Derrida's the written comes before the spoken come in here? Or is that 'metaphorical'. How important to people is written language? Poetry? After all we mostly speak and reading of "literature" a such as Joyce or Shakespeare is a minority activity.

Carving is or as a kind of a language?

11:57 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

documentary about tonga an the wto

http://spasifikmag.com/publicbusinesspage/18junwtonotbringing/

9:42 am  

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