Savage Memory Film Project

Thursday, March 31, 2005

Tovesei Trobriand Tyrant

Remember that big funeral we were supposed to go to? Well, the feast and the distribution of valuables would take place today and we weren't going to miss it even though at this point it seemed likely we were cursed and prime targets for being poisoned by one of the anonymous festival dishes.

We'd just moved to John Kaisepwelova's house, the cheif of the Kwainama clan, and been exposed to the ways of an enlightened chief blending his western education with traditional Trobriand values. He was trained by his Uncle in the arts of Kula magic and Love magic but his approach to these forms was a poetic onefilled with mystical interpretations. He spoke of magic as poetry, spells as poems and the creators of them as poets.

John says we shouldn't miss this feast as it's one of the biggest in a long while and people would be coming from all over the island to pay their respects to the Paramount chief. So we arrive early, armed with betelnut, and ask for permission from the chief to film the proceedings. The chief gives us his blessing along with a single symbolic betelnut and we feel like we've won the lottery. But just as we head over to investigate the strange mournful wailings we hear coming from across the village, we're intercepted by Tovesei. Tall and skinny and speaking great english, he informs us he is the Tourism officer for the island and leads us to a rest house far away from the eyes and ears of the chief. We think he's going to give us some helpful hints as to how to conduct ourselves during the feast but as soon as we sit down, the tone changes.

Tovesei informs us that Trobriand 'organic law' requires that he be informed of our purpose on the island. He was not aware of our presence and has the right to confiscate our equipment and ask us to leave the premises and the island immediately. The Japanese film crew that came recently, he told us, had done the 'right thing' and forked over 1500K($300). "Is Malinowski really your great grandfather? I want written proof!" We had to simultaneously hold each other back(Kelly pinched me before I could pounce and I intercepted her upercut as it sailed toward his face) from physically assaulting Tovesei. We knew we had all the necessary documents and that WE'D SHOW HIM!

To complicate things, we found out that the deceased was in fact Tovesei's own sister and thus we must feign sensitivity to this punk. So we gathered up our equipment, making sure not to leave anything that might be confiscated, and head to the hotel to get our documents. Back at John's place, he tells us that this sort of behavior is not out of character for Tovesei. In fact, he had used the 1500K from the Japanese to get himself and a bunch of friends wastedwhen it was meant to cover the costs of a large scale festival for the Japanese to film. Over the next few days, we heard enough stories about Tovesei to confirm he is a grade A bastard. The discouraging news was that he is a likely contender for successor to chief Pulayasi and those who confirmed Tovesei's underhanded ways, continue to consider him a likely prospect. We almost went on a smar campaign of our own but we had other fish to fry.

When we returned and layed down the paperwork, Tovesei could do nothing and all of a sudden he became our best friend. Everytime we turned the camera on, he appeared and he features quite prominently in the footage of the feast as he was the main organiser for the exchanging of valuables.

This was quite an experience and neither of us has ever seen anything like it. While the Woman organised and distributed hundreds of banana leave bundles to those people who helped the deceased during her illness, the men distributed valuables in the form of clay pots, stone money, shell valuables and cash. It was quite difficult to keep track of everything but the scene was a visual parade and great fun to shoot. The final event consisted of all the men gathering around a group of clay pots, one for each clan and, one by one, distributing coins and bills to go to representatives of each clan.

This was certainly the largest gathering/event we observed on the island and quite a scene it was. That evening, upon looking in Michael Young's book of photographs, we came across a number of photographs which contain pictures of a Tovesei who was around during Mal's time and he is the spitting image of his namesake, the modern day Tovesei, Trobriand tyrant.

Looking for love in all the wrong places

After spending the weekend in Okaiboma gathering 16mm footage, we're on our way to meet the love doctor of Kumilabwaga, he who holds the spells, rites and stories for love magic. Monday morning bright and early we head out, first to Wawela to pick up our contact, Pogisa. Pogisa's gestalt is the first sign that this trip may not go as smoothly as planned (he's got a macho gait and the size-you-up eyes of a con-artist). The second sign quickly follows when our transport gets a flat tire. But it's quickly changed and we're on our way again, smiling dumbly and ignoring the glaring and telltale omens. Third is a massive tree, fallen in the middle of the road which has to be cleared away with machetes and fourth is our driver dumping us at the path to Kumilabwaga,(That could have easily been driven) for a "1/2 km" hike that is in fact more like 5km, never to return. . .

5km later we emerge from the bush into a village that is straight out of 'Apocalypse Now' or more appropriately, Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness.' This village is the seat of love magic and we're both planning to benefit personally from the knowledge gained in this interview. We're greeted by the Love Dr's supposed son and everything seems to be going as planned, but as the telltale signs foretold, this day was doomed. Pogisa, sheisty !#)(*!#&#, our paid informant does not a thing. He settles down against the post of a resting house into betelnut chewing heaven, oggling the passing women's backsides. The love Dr's son proceeds to tell us that the cost of the story we want to hear, a story already recorded by Malinowski and known by every man, woman & child on the island, will be 200,000 Kina (the equivalent to $65,000). We laugh and come back with the more appropriate sum of 20 Kina ($7). After about 2 hours of waiting and Zach explaining that we're going into debt making this project, the final figure for the love magic story stands at 1000 Kina, about a quarter of the money that we brought with us to the island for our month-long stay. We grab Pogisa out of his betelnut induced stupor and hightale it out of town. As we trudge the 5km back we wonder: have we doomed our love prospects for the rest of our lives? Will we be victims of sorcery? We were recently told to avoid the southern part of the island because witches and sorcerers abound. Oh happy day.

Finally back at Sinaketa, where we expect our driver to be waiting so we can race off and record the funeral events for the chief's niece , the driver is nowwhere to be found. 3 Hours later, the chief's niece safely underground, we're still waiting in Sinaketa. I guess this shouldn't be a surprise, but Kelly's ants in her pants do cause quite a stir. It's times like these where you have to appreciate Mal's work having done this without transport, roads, a good friend from home - was he out of his mind??

Friday, March 25, 2005

Down with the Chief

No Tears were shed, no facial groping. In fact, when we got to Omarakana, the chief's digs, Chief Pulayasi, his Highness, was maxing in a baseball cap and jogging shorts and gave us a nod and the Trobriand equivalent to "Wassup." Much to her dismay, Kelly immediately subverted protocol and walked at full height behind the chief in search of the perfect shot.

As anti-climactic as the scene was, Pulayasi was a very pleasant man and he seemed to appreciate the Betel nut. Zach recounted the story of his father and Malinowski's ghost at the Yale cemetary in his broken, Indian-English accent, only to have the story translated to Kiriwinian by Linus. The chief didn't have too much to say and all in all he reminded us of a Trobriand George bush(baseball cap included), riding on the coat tails of his ancestors' political success.

At the time when Malinowski lived in Omarakana, the Paramount Chief To'uluwa had 30 wives which established alliances all over the island. Pulayasi has a measley 4 wives and thus limited political reach. We also heard that he bought his son's seat in PNG Parliament. Linus took our meeting with Pulayasi as an opportunity to let him know that he would be contesting his son's seat in Parliament in the next election. Gulp.

What we walked away with: the endorsement of the chief for filming on the island, stories about communication with ancestors in dreams, location shots of where Mal lived and worked during his first expedition to Trobs. We visited Touluwa and Mitakata's graves but unfortunately the chief was too lazy to get his butt off his throne and show us the graves himself ( was raining).

Thursday, March 24, 2005


After Linus' departure, we set off for his father's village to avoid the hefty prices of our lodge(which at this point was entirely disfunctional-no power and failing water supply). We would be staying w/ Linus' brothers and their families in an idyllic smaller village just beyond the main village of Okaiboma and right on the path to the beach. Our costs would be next to nothing with very little compromise(if you don't mind eating yams for breakfast, lunch and dinner and sleeping on hard wood slats- slightly curved and unevenly layed so that you're bound to wake up at least 4 times a night). We were up for the compromise and thought the opportunity might offer some inside access to village life for 16mm shooting.

Linus Brothers' small village was a wonderful experience. I(Kelly) particularly enjoyed bathing every night under hundreds of stars with no human light to compete. It may have been slightly too idyllic however with even their own pesonal well and pristine grassy hill. They'd chosen this spot and the arms length from the village for a reason and thus we were a bit removed fro the more raucus intrigues of the larger village.

I(Zach) was feeling like we were not very productive at all during this time and beating myself up about it while Kelly kept on with her penetrating optimism pointing out the things that we had filmed and experienced:

We captured children playing n the water, fishing and singing. A pentecostal church service. In fact we also got a community bakesale(Wherever there are christians there are bakesales!), people pulling water from the well, a woman scraping banana leaves to make currency(topless). We took a canoe ride, Zach bathed in a typhoid-germ infested natural water cave (K's interpretation). We filmed lush, green yam gardens, men playing checkers with bottlecaps, torrential downpours. OK, we got about half an hour of 16mm film, forget the self loathing!

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Kitava, Kula Paradise

All of a sudden we find ourselves going after Kula, the trade practice that Malinowski is most famous for recording. We're on a barge with seven Kula negotiators and a bunch of construction workers from Alotau. The lead spokesman for the chief is very well versed on Malinowski and gives a comparison between, Mal and Harry Powell, a later anthropologist who lived in the Trobs and planted his own yam garden.

Linus, our guide and now very good friend, is inspired by the whole scene and writes our names and places of origin: "We are on a mission for Kula" he writes, places the paper in a bottle and chucks it overboard with the hope that it will land on Okaiboma beach, his home village. Four hours later, we arrive on the small island of Kitava(Just Northeast of Kiriwina). Z and I decide to take a swim and in our refreshed state, Z leaves his purse full of close to $1,300 and his passport on the beach. 1/2 hour later he goes back in search of it and after scanning the beach and the barge he thinks it's all over. But, and I'm not sure this would happen anywhere else but the Trobriands, the purse is safe with a family on the beach and completely untouched.

On that note, Kitava is unlike any place either of us have ever been. Aside form kerosene for lamps, and the demand for betel nut, there is little or no need for money. It's a completely barter based island unlike Kiriwina, which, although still along those lines, has a number of canteens with western goods for sale.

Well, Mwalis(Kula arm shells) were on display everywhere for the traders who will come from Kiriwina with the prospect of trading their necklaces (Bagis) with their Kula partners. The chief had sent his men to scout the pickings and to find out why certain villages were refusing to display the more valuable armshells. Was it because he hadn't mourned properly for a recently deceased relative on Kitava? Too easy. The chief's Kula partner's are waiting for him to lay down a bagi to show he is serious about negotiation, a bagi(don't tell anyone) he has yet to recieve from the east.

In all of our talks with Kitavans on Kula, we came to realize that the main purpose of engaging in it is to gain fame and renoun throughout the islands, to become a major Kula player or champion.We met one such man and stayed in his village. He told us in an interview that Kula is all about generosity and establishing liaisons and partners across the islands. But as we talked with others, it seemed to boil down to establishing a name for yourself. Linus sees Kula pretty much as a sport and I thus likened it to Baseball in the US. The fervor over the Red Sox last season seemed to be in line with the obsession that most Trobrianders have with these shell necklaces, an obsession that would drive someone to poison their neighbor to get one. I know enough Bostonians who might consider poisoning a Yankees fan if it meant the success of the Sox!

To us All the shell valuables look quite similar but Linus points out the importance of the different ages and craftsmanship of certain ones. The most valuable ones carry names which date back to Malinowski's time. In fact, we were shown a bagi that Malinowski recorded in Argonauts and Shirley Campbell had told Kelly about seeing some 70 years later during her own fieldwork. If you are a big Kula player, certain Mwalis will take on your name and thus insure your fame will last for decades throughout the Kula trading ring.

One of our Dimdim(Kiriwinian for "whitey") compatriots from the barge cared enough to buy a Mwali off a trader for 50K($17) and thus took it out of the trading loop forever.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Yeah Baby!

This is the 3rd entry from the Trobs. Check out the two below if you want some sense of continuity. It starts with "Get on the Boat" then "snubbed by the chief." Enjoy. We hope to hear comments from everyone.

It was a day among days. Yet again, we waited out the cool hours of the morning for our transport to arrive and take us away in the blazing sun (105 degrees as usual, plus humidity - putting as at a drenched and sweaty stupor). You can apply this description to any morning or blog from here on out.

The previous night's activities had uncovered a new plan & destination. Hail Julius, the Greek mob boss of PNG, and his crew of construction workers ended up at Butia Lodge along with a letter from the owner of Butia to make sure that they were treated as 'special guests'. A party, complete with traditional dancers, booze, boobs and some wild dancing, was thrown. In the mayhem we managed to secure a spot on their barge that would be departing for Kitava island the following day along with seven of the Paramount Cheif's kula investigators (spokesmen for the chief who were sent to negotiate for the best shell valuables with the chief's kula partners).

We finally arrived at Linus' hut and gave him the new agenda. He informed us of a death in a nearby village and some upcoming funeral activities so we headed that way before our afternoon departure. At the funeral site the women were preparing bundles of dried banana leaves for distribution. The banana leaf bundles act as a currency in the villages and are the women's contribution to the funeral proceedings. remarkable: the family of the deceased is responsible for giving goods and valuables to the deceased's in-laws.

We got some beautiful 16mm shots of woman gathering bundles under the coconut trees, but unfortunately we had to race off to the catch the barge and we missed the actual distribution of goods. (Of course, the barge didn't end up leaving until the following day...) Ah well, some good imagery and on to the next adventure.

PS: Favorite shot from the banana bundlers was a pregnant woman wearing a t-shirt that said 'Oh yeah, me so horny!' and on the back side 'YEAH BABY!!'

Saturday, March 19, 2005

Snubbed by the chief

We're beginning to learn that time is not a fixed idea here. If we ask for transport at 7am, expect it by 10. Our first order of business is to meet with Paramount Chief, Daniel Pulayasi of Omarakana Village. Malinowski's first round of fieldwork was spent there living alongside the chief at that time, Chief Touluwa. On our way, we imagine Zach and the chief holding out their hands to each other, perhaps touching eachother's faces, shedding a tear. Chief Pulayasi, fourth generation in Touluwa's line and Zach the great grandson of Malinowski, would share stories about their ancestors today.

But when we arrive in Omarakana, the chief has just gone to the garden. When they send someone to get him, he refuses to come. Is this a bad omen for the project? The chief of the entire island has refused to meet with us. Shit. Linus assures us that he will meet with us in the next few days but we can't quite shake the feeling of foreboding. Kelly comes up with the brilliant idea of sending the chief betelnut, the coveted green nuts that every trobriander (maybe everyone in PNG) chews with lime. We purchase a huge bunch of juicy nuts and send them along with the hope that there is better news to come.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Get on the boat

Arriving at the domestic terminal in Port Moresby, Linus is nowhere to be found and he doesn't show until ten minutes before the flight takes off. No worries, this is just our introduction to Trobriand tinme where minutes and hours are as flexible as the fresh water flowing in and out of the tidal inlets. Nonetheless, we all make it onto the flight and arrive smoothly at our lodge in Alotau. It is a breath of fresh air after Moresby to be able to walk outdoors and chat with local people.

That evening, our lodge is hosting the "Miss Alotau contest"! Beautiful young girls are on parade with labels such as "Miss Heavy equipment" and "Miss Nawae Construction." This event is accompanied by an Indian buffet cooked by a bunch of Indian locals who show up in Saris. We have to laugh at the crazy mix of cultural elements. Where are we?

The first people we meet at our lodge are a polish couple who have come to PNG to visit the Trobriand Islands and track the footsteps of (drumroll please) The "famous" anthropologist Malinowski! They are most interested in Mal's interpretation of Freud's oedepous complex in the context of a matrilineal society . . . hmmm.

The next day we gather our provisions, buy our tickets and board the 24 hour boat to the Trobriands. As the boat passes various islands, Linus points out the places where he and various colleagues have done fieldwork. The landscape is breathtaking and now I understand why Mal spent so many endless paragraphs describing landscapes, the sunsets, the shades of the sky, the foliage in his diaries. I'll take the real thing though and I won't bore you , like he did me, with my own descriptions.

With us on the boat is an Italian Nun who just recovered from near death Malaria and is on her way back to Kiriwina. She is a reminder of the now very strong presence of Christianity on the Island. "Pretty much everyone is christian" Linus says. About 80% are United church and 15% Pentecostal. During Mal's time, the missionaries were just getting a foothold in the islands and he railed against them in his diary. He also ignored thier presence in his ethnography. He saw them as a destructive element to traditional Trobriand culture.. Linus seems to agree, pointing out that so much time is taken for Christian events, gatherings and feats, that the regular productivity of a Trobriander is reduced. We later heard others talk about the negative influence of the christian calendar on planting cycles?

Finally the island comes into sight and the boat slowly approaches the wharf at Losuia. Hundreds of people have come to meet the boat. They stand staring as we dock. Upon descent, the madness ensues, Everyone is clamouring to unload the cargo to see thier newly arrived relatives. It seems like everyone knows eachother and Linus knows everyone. We're her: "The islands of Love." Did Malinowski coin this phrase? We crash at our lodge where the generator is down(phone lines on the island are also down) and go to sleep by the glow aof a kerosene lamp ready to begin our explorations.

Free Web Counters
Web Site Counter