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Astra Film Festival

Astra Film Festival 2007

Portrait Bob Connolly

ASTRA FILM FEST 2007 celebrates the work of the renowned australian couple Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson in a special program.

When we were thinking of a famous documentarist to present in a portrait section for this edition of the festival, the films of Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson came at once to my mind. I had first had the occasion to see these films during a research seminar in the Cross Cultural Research Centre in Canberra at the Australian National University. As part of the workshop activities there were many screenings and discussions. We watched more films then anyone could digest, and a lot of them about aboriginal culture from Australia, New Zealand and New Guinea.

These cultures were totally unfamiliar to me. But one of them was the Highland trilogy, and this truly impressed me. Still at that time my experience was mingled up with the cultural shock of the whole context and the intense workshop work I was in.

When I came back to Romania, for years some of the scenes continued to haunt me, the power of the images and the scenes made in an observational style brought me a first hand experience of the life of Ganiga people. Since then I have often felt a need to rewatch them. These films have a power to evoke a human world that is rare in the genre. I can state this with some confidence after years of watching hundreds of documentaries during the selection process for this festival.

Many times I wanted to rewatch these films. I tried to get a copy from here and there, and never succeeded, and I found out that other people were looking for those copies. I must say, if a documentary film becomes a good to be pirated after tens of years, this fact in itself stands for its quality!

It is no exaggeration to say that The Highland trilogy of the two authors we show in the portrait section has a strong claim to being among the greatest and most important creations of the documentary genre in the twentieth century. Indeed if we were to select only three documentary films from the twentieth century to preserve for posterity the history of the relationship between the colonised and the colonisers, between the poor and the rich, the ‘developed’ and the ‘undeveloped’ Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson’s trilogy would surely come at the top of our list.

To make a great film is as much a matter of the opportunity grasped at the right moment as of realising the inherent power of the subject matters. The bravura of Connolly and Anderson’s achievement is perhaps most evident in the extraordinary middle film of the trilogy, Joe Leahy’s Neighbours. For in this film we the viewers can witness, as if in fast forward and close-up, a crucial moment in struggles that have taken place across the globe over the past four hundred years. In every continent and every nation during these centuries an ethos of kinship, personal dependencies and shared social obligations has given way to a world grounded in private property, impersonal contractual relations and personal enrichment. But never has this happened without a struggle. And this is what Connolly and Anderson have caught for us. What we have, in brief, played out in ninety minutes is the story of the emergence and rise of capitalism, viewed not as historical event but in real time.

Joe Leahy is the son of an Australian planter and a native woman. He lives in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. After ten years of hard work he has become the rich owner of a coffee plantation. To expand his activities he makes a treaty with his neighbours, the Ganiga tribe. Is he as some Ganiga claim a white exploiter, tricking the uneducated Ganiga out of their birthright? Or, is he a new kind of tribal chief, bringing wealth and development to a place abandoned by time.

And, as if by magical transposition, some twenty minutes into Joe Leahy’s Neighbours, Leahy’s first ally explains what happens when he tried to welcome the ‘white man’s ways’ into the community:

“When Joe was a labourer on a white man’s plantation he saved up his wages and began to dream about having land of his own. No one offered him land so I came forward. I told Joe I was just an ordinary man with some land to spare. Did he want it? Joe was overjoyed. He came and hugged me. But when I told the rest of the Ganiga many disagreed. No! They cried. I was so enraged I hit Dubai with an axe...All the Ganiga watched as we marked out the land….”

Joe Leahy’s Neighbours was filmed in the remote mountains of Papua New Guinea. But in Romania today as well as in other countries of Eastern Europe, in how many villages could one make a ‘post communist’ Joe Leahy’s Neighbours?

The film is not only remarkable for the panache with which Connolly and Anderson took their great opportunity. It is also a model of a documentary film. If the essence of documentary is that we understand that what we watch reflects what happened in front of the camera as the film was made, here we have one of those rare films where the power of the unfolding events appears to have been caught in the raw by the film makers. And like all great documentaries we are left puzzling as to the nature of the social conflicts and the meaning of the story we are privileged to witness.

If ‘Neighbours’ is the peak of the series the surrounding two films are no less engrossing and startling in their ability to find historical import in the daily lives of their subjects.

In First Contact we find ourselves back in the 1930s, when Joe Leahy’s father, Michael, ventured into the Highlands of New Guinea, the first recorded ‘white man’ to make the journey. Leahy, who headed a group of Australian miners, went with a Mauser under one arm, a Leica under the other and a movie camera in his bags. With this camera, miners recorded the first moments of contact with people who, technologically speaking, were still living in the Stone Age. It is the genius of Connolly and Anderson to have seen in this material the chance to retell the story of the first moments of colonialism across the world. Columbus, Cortez and Livingstone may not have carried cameras on their journeys to the New World and through Africa, but through First Contact we can imagine something of those other encounters too.

The amazing footage shot by Michael Leahy’s companions forms the basis of First Contact. But this is just the springboard for a profound and challenging examination of the meeting of cultures. Fifty years after ‘first contact’ some of the participants recall their experiences. The Papuans tell how they thought the white men were their ancestors, bleached by the sun and returned from the dead. And the Australians recall their fear, outnumbered by ‘primitives’ with whom they could not communicate. But what we also see alongside the darker exchanges of wealth for sex and privilege is the way human beings may still find common humanity through their differences.

This remarkable parable of economic development and the rise of capitalism is brought to a conclusion in the third part of the Trilogy, Black Harvest. In the second film Leahy found a local ally, Popina Mai, a warlord and orator who established a new shared plantation, Kaugum, which Mai hoped would provide the basis of a new and fairer relationship between the neighbours. Now, after several years patiently waiting for the coffee trees to mature the first harvest is ready to be brought in. The Ganigas are looking forward to the reward for their hard work. They want money and believe that the coffee-harvest will answer their prayers to live in fine houses like Leahy. But these expectations weigh heavily on the shoulders of Joe, Popina Mai and the Ganiga. As the ways of the clan and of ‘brotherhood’ clash with the rules of self interest and personal enrichment a struggle for power erupts. The promise of wealth is replaced by the harsh reality of tribal war.

With the Highland Trilogy we bring you three classic documentaries made with dedication and lot of anthropological insights from one of the more unknown places on our planet. But having shared them together today we hope you agree that they speak to our experience more directly and more honestly than a thousand any other films made about well known places. What more can a documentary filmmaker achieve?

First Contact

Director: Bob Connolly, Robin Anderson
Country: U.K./ France/ Australia
Year: 1987
Length: 54
In the early thirties the last remaining large populations in the world came into contact with Western civilization. First Contact tells the story of the "discovery" of the New Guinea highlands by Australian gold prospectors, and in particular Michael Leahy and his brothers. The first part of the film of First Contact provides the background to the story. They include a brief description of the highlands and the highlanders, a very brief history of the European presence in Papua and New Guinea and an account of Leahy's early life. The filmis about the events of 1933, when Leahy led a series of prospecting expeditions into the highlands and initiated the first contacts between highlanders and Europeans. The account is based on his diaries and later writings and on interviews with people still alive who witnessed the events — highlanders, white Australians, and their carriers from coastal groups. The last part of the film describes the forces that would irrevocably alter highland culture.


Joe Leahy's Neighbours

Director: Bob Connolly, Robin Anderson
Country: U.K./ Australia
Year: 1988
Length: 90
The follow-up film of First Contact. It traces the fortune of Joe Leahy, mixed-race son of an Australian explorer Michael Leahy and a highland woman, and follows his uneasy relationship with his tribal neighbours, the Ganina. Joe built his coffee plantation on land bought from the Ganina in the mid 1970s. Raised in the village but educated by the colonial whites, Joe has his feet into cultural camps. He spends much of his wakings hours just keeping the lid on things. Filmmakers Connolly and Anderson lived 18 months on the edge of Joe’s plantation, in the ‘no man’s land’ between Leahy and the Ganina. Their lively, non-judgemental narrative film eloquently captures the conflicting values of tribalism and capitalism.


Black Harvest

Director: Bob Connolly, Robin Anderson
Country: U.K./ France/ Australia
Year: 1992
Length: 90
The third film of the renowed trilogy on Papua New Guinea joins First Contact and Joe Leahy’s Neighbours. Black Harvest charts the progress of Joe in convincing the Ganiga tribe people to join him in a coffee growing venture. He provides the money and the expertise; the supply and land and labor. But on the eve of success, the world coffee price collapses and tribal warfare erupts in the valley. Always suspect because of his mixed-race status, Joe is in deep trouble with the tribespeople when his promises of riches fail to materialise. As he organizes to emigrate with his family to Australia, he is a saddened man with an uncertain future.