McLaren, Les and Annie Stiven
1996 Taking Pictures. Brooklyn, New York: Icarus Films.
Notes: color, 56 minutes; First Run/Icarus Films 153 Waverly Place, New York, NY, 10014; (212)727-1711.
Reviewed 8 Jan 1998 by:
Miriam Kahn <email@example.com>
University of Washington, Seattle, WA
Medium: Film/Video Subject
Papua New Guinea
ABSTRACT: Taking Pictures focuses on several Australian film makers and the internationally renowned documentaries they made in Papua New Guinea in the 1970s-90s. Juxtaposing clips of the videos with interviews of the film makers, it reflects upon the Western tradition of inquiring into and recording other people's lives, raising questions about representation and filming in another culture. Australian film makers Les McLaren and Annie Stiven made this video and are also featured in it. Les McLaren made "Kama Wosi" (1979) and "Namekas" (1979), and together they directed "Cowboy and Maria in Town" (1992).
Taking Pictures begins with an unsettling image. As an unsteady camera veers all over the place, unable to focus on its subject, an obviously irritated New Guinean tells the video makers, "Show me your license before you film... We're just ordinary people and you take these pictures and go back to your place and portray us very badly... Turn the camera off or I'll smash it." With this lack of visual focus and angry comments, the video instantly zooms in to the heart of the matter.
Starting in the 1970s, during the time of great social and cultural experimentation that surrounded Papua New Guinea's independence, several Australian film makers went to PNG, most of them settling there. They saw themselves as "agents of anti-racism" in documentary projects that were to undo earlier paternalistic films. "Taking Pictures" moves haphazardly between interviews with these film makers and clips of their films. For anyone who has viewed the films discussed in "Taking Pictures," the video is an insightful and thoughtful exploration about the practicalities, politics, and philosophies of making documentaries in other cultures. It is refreshing to see the film makers and to hear the reflexive commentary they now provide about their past experiences and films.
For example, Gary Kildea, best known for directing "Trobriand Cricket" (1976), relates how he documented Trobriand Islanders' adaptation of cricket in order to portray a culture's active response to colonialism in ingenious ways, thus countering the way in which subjects of colonialism usually were seen only as passive victims of progress. He muses about peoples' misunderstanding of the film, viewing it as a film about the sport of cricket.
Dennis O'Rourke, who appears frequently in the video, is well known for numerous politically precocious films about Papua New Guinea, such as "Yumi Yet" (1976), "Ileksen" (1978), "The Shark Callers of Kontu" (1982), and "Cannibal Tours" (1987). In his early films about PNG independence and politics, he saw himself as "helping to create a sense of national identity," yet noticed that "people redefined themselves at the very point of seeing themselves in the films." In his reflections about "Cannibal Tours," he presents his own interpretation of probably the most viewed and reviewed documentary in PNG history. According to O'Rourke, the film, made when he no longer lived in PNG, is a perverse comment on his own role as a photographer over the years he lived and filmed there. It is "full of moments where I make reference to how complicit I am as a film maker -- and the audience who is watching -- in any process that seeks to document something as everyday as wealthy tourists visiting the Sepik." Elsewhere he ponders the fact that films, as finished artifacts, may look seamlessly constructed and very natural but that getting to that point is much messier -- like life itself.
Only two of Chris Owen's films are discussed, "The Red Bowman" (1983) and "Man Without Pigs" (1990). The latter is about John Waiko, who, after receiving his PhD from the University of Papua New Guinea, returns to his village to take part in a ritual. In Owen's words, the film is about the complexity of village politics and the enormous demands and expectations on a person like Waiko.
Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson, who are well known for making "First Contact" (1983), "Joe Leahy's Neighbors" (1988), and "Black Harvest"(1992), talk about the act of filming and its likeness to writing a script, where one is writing while living in the midst of the unfolding plot. For example, while making "Black Harvest," a fight broke out that made filming dangerous. Later, viewers thought the warfare scenes were so extraordinary that they must have been staged, causing Connolly to comment on the pomposity of people who think that New Guineans would kill one another just to make a more arresting film.
In making "Kama Wosi" (1979), Les McLaren was trying to encourage cultural retention, only to be informed by the Trobrianders that "carving is nothing special. What are you taking pictures for? Day and night, day and night, taking pictures for nothing." McLaren explains that "back then we thought we knew everything." Together with Annie Stiven he also made "Cowboy and Maria in Town" (1992) about urban migrants in Port Moresby. Cowboy, the main actor, complained that parts of the story were missing. Yet, as McLaren explains, film consists of fragments of people's lives.
Ian Dunlop's magnum opus incorporates "Towards Baruya Manhood" (1972) and "Baruya Muka Archival" (1992), together totaling 20 hours of film. Dunlop talks about moral issues he encountered in film making. The Baruya helped document the film, but insisted on retaining control over its access, declaring that the films couldn't be shown in Papua New Guinea and that only the first in the series could be shown overseas. Kumain Kolain, who was one of the male initiates filmed in 1972, later wanted to see the films and, upon doing so, noticed that Dunlop had omitted parts of the ceremony. This sparked his interest in learning film making, something he studied in France, in order to document "everything" for the next generation. Scenes such as this raise a tension -- unexplored in the video -- between the dismissive "taking pictures for nothing" attitude, on the one hand, and the local determination to film for posterity, on the other.
Another PNG national, Martin Maden, trained at the national film school established in 1980. As part of his technological training in Paris, he wasasked to make a film about different age groups. In the process, he discovered that it was difficult to make a film about old people and ended up making a film, "Stolat," about the difficulty of making the film.
After revisiting these classic documentaries, and listening to their makers' reflections, this loosely structured but penetrating video endswith an image every bit as riveting as the image in the opening scene. This time the viewer looks directly into the front of a camera lens. As the frame expands we see that behind the camera, peering into the lens to take a picture, is a tourist whose face is painted to appear like that of aSepik villager. In that final split second we are reminded of the power ofthe camera as an other-capturing, self-reflecting, mediator between people, cultures, voyeurs, imitators, and visions. "Taking Pictures" is about more than the politics of focusing the camera. In a deeper sense, it also captures film's inability to be captured, and the trickiness of critiquing film through the very medium it seeks to explore.
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