Public Lecture and Film Showing at USP, 15 Sept 2009

The Public Lecture on Social Filmmaking in Tonga was a great success. The lecture theatre at USP was full. Fun(d)raising was shown half way through the lecture and afterwards many people asked questions and offered their own testimonies of filmmaking. The lecture and film were recorded by TMN and a half hour version was shown on their channel the following evening.

Here is the full text of the lecture. Half way down there is some video of the reception of Fun(d)raising.


PUBLIC LECTURE USP(University of the South Pacific)

DR MIKE POLTORAK, University of Kent

Filmmaking for Social Health and Premiere of Fun(d)raising

15 September 2009


Fakatapu ki he hou’eiki, mo e ha’a matapule mo kimoutolu kotoa ke u ata ke fakahoko ae talanga oe efiafini.


In the last 10 years Tonga and film-making have come together in very exciting ways.

We have a feature film being made on Tonga, ‘My Lost Kainga’ and local television broadcasting local content. To my knowledge, last year’s film competition in November with all the films being shown on national television is a first in world media. There are important social, research, development and commercial implications.


This public lecture is a short journey around several films on Tonga, taking a stock take of the past, and looking to the future. The filling of the sandwich will be a documentary about Tinitini and will be thick. I promise, the bread either side will be (manifi) thin, no more than 15mins.


Every film is a commentary on films that went before, and can act to prompt new films. I am very keen to leave plenty of time to have an open discussion. Many of you in this room have important knowledge and expertise.

I would like to start in my living room in Brighton. Just several weeks ago, I turned on the TV in the UK to watch, Baron Vaea, and the current King speak about the last visit of Queen Elizabeth to Tonga in the fifties. This was part of a presenter led series, called ‘On Tour with the Queen’ returning to the countries she visited as part of her coronation tour, an example of soft diplomacy as Britain realised it could financially no longer maintain its empire. The queen had made a special request to visit Tonga. Cut into the film was wonderful footage of her visit. As I watched, I wondered how many people in Tonga would have access to such archive footage of their parents and grandparents. Only last week, the healer I worked with in Tefisi commented, the great thing about my leaving a DVD of a kaifakaafe I recorded was people could come and see relatives long departed.


This has prompted me to ask the question are there uniquely Tongan ways of engaging with film and film-making? A question I cannot answer in the short time today. Given that Pacific models of everything from mental illness to leadership are in fashion in the moment, is it possible to find a useful Tonga model of film-making and film watching. This would act not to define, but more as learning device or heuristic. If films can be likened to islands, then this model would act rather like a guide to canoeing to help us navigate around the islands. A thinking tool to evaluate and plan. A model is merely a help to navigating, not a map , nor a representation of reality.


For this lecture, I would like to use a ‘Tinitini’ Model of film-making. A model, whose inspiration, is alive and kicking and still living in Pangai in Vava’u, recently returned from New Zealand after fundraising for a new bus that now bears his image. A first for Tonga I believe. I say this because last week a friend in Ha’apai insisted that Tinitini was dead, and it was only showing him film I had filmed the week before that convinced him he wasn’t. For him, and for many no doubt in Tonga, given the creative use of language, seeing really was believing. This hints at another important use of film in Tonga.

For your information, it is Siua Tutone, is no longer around, he unfortunately died this year of diabetes.


Three issues are important in a Tinitini model to ask of a film:


  1. Who is the intended audience? (You must know your audience to make them laugh).
  1. What is the purpose? (For Tinitini Fundraising is the official purpose, but social commentary is also there)
  2. What is effect of the film on its makers and those involved in its making? (How does filmmaking transform the filmmakers and participants?)



If we look at many of the earliest films on Tonga we can see that the intended audience was in the main overseas, a general public audience. You can tell in part from the English narration. Footage of Queen Salote’s coronation kava circle, filmed by David Attenborough, was heavily influenced by documentary styles of the BBC at the time. It was sadly lost in a flood in the BBC archives.

Much filming since by the BBC, whether focused on nature or re-enactments of Polynesia voyaging has had a very general focus, fitting into the narrative of a grand story. The purpose being education through entertainment, with little attention paid to how the film-making process might be transformative for people involved in it’s filming.

Such film do not consider a potential Tongan audience.

According to Hahn, a Tongan tradition of going to the movies has existed since the 1930’s. Film showing technology was never far behind the technology of some small American towns. Tongan narrators, such at Tava, were famous in their own right for translating films for the Tongan audience. As Ve’ehala once explained, people would ask first, who is the narrator, and second, what is the film. There is the often told joke of the narrator who finished his narration only to find there was another reel to show.


According to one lady:


‘He would make comments from the projection

booth to keep himself awake. “Isn’t that girl

beautiful? So beautiful. . as beautiful as the flower

of the (let’s say) the heilala tree.’


But then depending on the film and his mood, the girl might be incredibly beautiful or ugly, the tree full or lacking flowers. Often he would make things up, when he did not understand what was going on.


Watching films has been as part of Tonga experience as in many other parts of the world. What is curious though is how the aesthetic of these Hollywood films have hardly influenced early Tongan filmmaking.


A comparison of early documentary with some of my experience of video in Tonga is dramatic. Tongan filming of funeral and weddings is very focused on the particular, on capturing particular people and their relationships, as a recognition of participation. Videos were and are sent to relatives overseas as thanks for contribution and as a way for people to know who they are in relation to others. They are often unwatchable for those not familiar with some of the people in the film. The people are primary, the aesthetic is secondary.

No narration, no grand story. And often long. People asked me to film about 6 funerals and four weddings in Tonga while I was here from 1998 to 2000. I am no longer amazed how people could watch these 4 hours long film only weeks after the event, again and again. After all, they are watching a visual representation of genealogy and connection, as well as of personalities.


I would argue almost none of these films have reached a general Tongan or foreign audience. One has to turn to just before the new Millennium to find documentary films both addressing a more general audience and growing out of strong cultural and personal links. Two films Kava Kuo Heka (1999) and Haka he Langi Kuo Tau (2000)(we dance in the ecstasy of Singing), both produced by Professor Shumway at BYU, are the first I could find in a documentary tradition. Filmed professionally and with a respectable budget, they have narration and offer insight into the installation of a nopele (Fielakepa) and the production of lakalaka respectively. People speak in Tongan, there are subtitles ( I think). As to purpose, recording for posterity and defining what is Tongan culture is evident.


I now switch to a film shown two years ago in Nuku’alofa at the TRA(Tongan Research Association Conference in 2007. A film well known as much for the tragic death in gang shooting of the main protagonist, as for the film itself.


Sione Folau, 21, the star, was shot and killed in Sacramento several months after the film’s premiere. Sione’s Journey was made by Tongan student, Folola Takapu at Berkeley as part of her Ethnic studies class. Her aim was to address issues of identity that Tongan go through in the US, but also to educate the general Berkeley population about who Tongans are. As Sione Folau travels around San Francisco asking the question what is a Tongan, he learns more about misperceptions of Tonga and more about himself. Here the film acts also as a research strategy, with the process and the results open for all to see. It is evident that making the film was empowering for Folola. In her words:


‘I got to do a film about something that was personal to me but that I knew

a lot of Tongans would identify with. I also got to film my cousins and friends and have long conversations with them about these issues. I also loved to see the reaction of the audience during the film showings. It also gave me the opportunity to be in long conversations with my dad. Being at Berkeley and away from home helped me to become really close to my dad.’



The film also served as a way for students to deal with Sione’s death, he was an innocent bystander in a drive by shooting.

I now turn to my film Fun(d)raising: The Secret of Tongan Comedy, that grew out of a concert I filmed in 1999 in Falaleu, . The original concert is now distributed and bootlegged all over Tonga. Its popularity convinced me that if I could make a film about the reasons for their comedy and try to translate it, there would be some use in intercultural understanding. From my experience, most films of Tonga did not get to some of the most interesting and difficult aspects of life here. As you will see the content and form of the film was directed by the collaborative process of making it. Aside from the clips of the original concert, all the footage was filmed in about a week, with a small mini DV camera and edited on a laptop. I say this to demonstrate that you do not need a big budget to make a useful film. The largest cost was my time. It is an example of participative filmmaking, with the final editing responsibility lying with myself. The stars were very happy for me to carry out this responsibility. In the future, I would like to change this.

(At this point Fun(d)raising was screened)



You can see that the Tinitini model of filmmaking grew out of the process of filmmaking with Tinitini. They perceived the film as part as a thanks to people all over Tonga, I wanted Tinitini to be recognised in a new way. The film linked me to Vava’u, kept me connected. To my knowledge the film where I have showed it has had a similar effect, allowing a different appreciation of Tonga. The Tongue in cheek Tinitini Model came out of the process of action, not just of thinking or drawing on historical resources. A model must emerge out of what people do to be true to its context. This is just one way of thinking of prospects for Tongan filmmaking:


The first category in a Tinitini model was:

  1. AUDIENCE (Know your audience)


Tinitini’s knowledge of his audience comes of course from many years living in Pangaimotu and travelling all over the world. He learns the hard way when his performances are insensitive or inappropriate. He knows the comedic sensitivities of some villages. He has been beaten up many times, and lost many teeth as a result.


People take seriously the presence of a camera, and the fact that the final product is a performance of sorts. Film-making can therefore be a useful research strategy and a vital way to record techniques and history in a form interesting to future generations. It cannot replace the written word, but it can complement it in a very useful way. Film is a unique educational resource to talk about current and past issues in Tonga and overseas. They draw students into the particular, rather than the general. Here, film libraries would be an important resource, with the aim of preserving many of funerals, wedding and other events filmed in villagers all over the country. I have yet to find other footage of Tinitini to preserve and make available. It exists but I am having trouble tracking it down. Any suggestions welcome.


  1. The second category was to know the purpose


You have to know your audience if you are going to convince them of something. Health Promotion is more effective if you know about how people themselves think about diabetes. To my mind, a film on the u’a, is more useful than one on BMI. Here Dr Puloka’s strategies linking local and psychiatric knowledge are a great example. Local groups can use video to communicate their concerns to govt in a way that allow representatives to relate to the issues local villagers are facing. Taimi’s my village is a step in this direction. It is a unique tool in building an appreciation of issues and histories of different villages in Tonga. Youth produced film are key to allowing youth voices to be appreciated and addressed. Filitonu’s productions are as important as a resource to appreciate youth difficulties as a way of addressing them.


Getting that footage on TV so that it can be spoken about is of course key.

Also being able to show documentaries about Tonga, to allow local audience to engage with correct and incorrect perceptions from overseas. Tongan and the British share a fascination of commentaries of other who have lived with them for many years. Mariner was perhaps the first. On environmental questions, the recent BBC series on the South Pacific has unique, and incredibly persuasive footage, of the benefits of reef preservation through coral gardening, and the negative effects of certain forms of tuna fishing. Ten minutes of such footage is more convincing than metres of newspaper space. There are also commercial profit incentives to making a film, though most documentaries are commissioned and fail to make a profit. Commercial motivations can on occasion get in the way of getting important films made. As I have demonstrated, films can be made with a limited budget. They are also more likely to succeed if you know your audience. There are also questions of copyright for locally made films that need to be discussed and addressed. I would argue that comedic art is intellectual property.




Filmmaking is transformative and can often be therapeutic. The tearful testimonies of people who lost relatives on the Princess Ashika was therapeutic for those who testified and those who watched their testimonies in Fe’ofaaki ae Kakau. Kalafi Moala, commented to me that never before have so many people commented on a program he has produced. It is the most popular programme sold (100 copies). The performers of Filitonu, and the actors in the 10 minute film Tavake can attest to this. To include, filmmakers in the films they film to attest to this process, in some cases, would be a important way to examine. One has more confidence in reflexive, filmmaking, as we get to appreciate the purpose and process of its production.


One might argue that those films that come out of intense personal interest are also more true and valuable as testimony. It is exciting to hear of Paul Stolls new project, building on Tavake, looking at the relationship and stories of his grandmother. I also look forward to two documentaries currently being made on Atenisi and Professor Futa Helu.

In conclusion; There is great potential in linking all the current strength in filmmaking in Tonga for social and commercial gain. Social, education and development transformation can best be effected with filmmaking that develop out of local issues and concerns. Other than being the location for films made about Tonga, There is also commercial benefit is being a focus of a new filmmaking strategy. Training and teaching in a university such as USP of students from all over the Pacific might be one strategy. I would like to leave you with final verse of a poem written many years ago by Konai Helu Thaman, entitled, the ‘Cinema’


The show is over

And there is a faint murmur


There is a rush for the only exit

The children, half asleep

Hurry home to the warmth of

Their soft tattered tapa [bark cloth]

Under which they will dream

Of rich palangis [Europeans] and brave cowboys

And will wake, laden with the wounds

Of time


Some researchers focus on the wounds, the negative effects of films on TV and DVDs at home, in violence and exposure to bad influences, and dreams unlikely to be fulfilled. Ultimately though, the most powerful way to address such issues is to encourage and produce local and transnational films to act as a counterweight. These both will change Tongan vision of the world and world visions of Tonga, a truly intercultural enterprise in the true spirit of comedy, a realisation of common humanity.



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