To launch The Healer and the Psychiatrist and celebrate the Best Feature Film award at the SVA Media and Film Festival, DER organised a talanoa with three esteemed panellists.

Patricia Fifita
As a Tongan native and professor at Oregon State, Patricia’s career spans medical and environmental anthropology and indigenous research methodologies and analytics, working toward collaborative and community based participatory work in the Pacific Islands.

Jessica Hardin
Jessica is an Australian cultural and medical anthropologist who is interested in how the intersection of medicine and religion shapes lived experiences of chronic illness and how that intersection leads to structural inequalities in everyday life.

Robert Lemelson (Moderator)
Robert Lemelson is a research anthropologist at the Semel Institute of Neuroscience and an adjunct professor of anthropology, both at UCLA. In 2007, he founded Elemental Productions, an ethnographic documentary film production company dedicated to producing films focusing on culture, psychology, and personal experience.

I could not have imagined a better panel to explore the value of the film in relation to research on Tonga, the wider Pacific and the craft of ethnographic documentaries on the theme of health and mental illness. I had taught visual anthropology using Robert Lemelson remarkable documentaries on mental health in Bali and was familiar with Jessica Hardin transformative analysis of diabetes and health in Samoa. Patricia Fifita is the only  Tongan medical anthropologist I know of and the fact she was from Koloa in Vava’u made me intensely curious of position on traditional healing.

You can watch the whole talanoa here and below.

Here is an outline of the talanoa so you can go straight to particular questions and comments:

0.0  Introduction by Alice Apley, CEO of DER

0.20 Tongan Welcome by Patricia Fifita

2.35 Ancestral and academic genealogy -Patricia Fifita

8.05 Comments -Patricia Fifita

The work of ‘ofa (love) as a healer. Deep interconnectedness. Care. The privilege of responsibility. Dr Puloka, talanoa and the kava bowl. To listen with compassion. One thing this film contributes and is very important, it illuminates some very critical needs within the health care system and it also illuminates really exciting possibilities for imagining better and more compassionate integrative health care. What do you think are possibilities for a more integrative path forward in health-care in Tonga, some of the challenges and exciting possibilities for pushing forward a more integrative approach?

12.17 Comments-Robert Lemelson

I found this a wonderful film. I found it a complete film because it had  the element of time, longitudinality, the element of reflexivity , your relationships with the characters was very self evident and very powerful and a testament to a lovely form of connected anthropology. The focus on healing and on all the medical anthropology issues was really profound. So congratulations. Question.

  1. The question of outcome and differential outcome cross culturally of psychotic illnesses cross-culturally. WHO and IPS studies on prognosis for psychotic illnesses. The film highlights some of the constellation of factors that lead to better outcomes in the developing world.
  2. Questions of efficacy-traditional healers very good for psychotic illnesses but less so for neuropsychiatric disorders.

17.38 Comments-Rebecca Hardin

The film resonates with the syncretic and pragmatic modalities with a really strong consciousness around culture and the Tongan way. Lens of structure violence, Tevita and Fine. Missing infrastructure, missing kinds of treatments. Health inequities. Unrelenting ceaseless efforts to help their families. Informal collaboration. Are there structural ways that Emeline and Mapa can collaborate? From my experience in Samoa, I wonder how much collaborating would codify knowledge and relations that might be problematic and detrimental to efficacy? In what ways might collaboration cause unpredicted and unforseen outcomes? Confidence, care, love and generosity in Emeline’s healing of babies. Teaching, I love this film, Levi-Strauss ‘Effectiveness of Symbols’

22.39 Response- Mike Poltorak

36.59  Question-CommentHelmar Kurz (University of Munster-research on Psychiatry and spiritual healing in Brazil )

Thank you…what strikes me most on that film is the affective/sensory/aesthetic aspect of healing. The psychiatrist , in the beginning, impressed me by integrating Music, Kava, and so on…in the end, he only talked about cognitive perception. So, I believe, and would like to know how Mike sees it, the importance of “aesthetics of healing”. Thank you, Helmar

38.45  Response-Mike Poltorak

40.43 Question -Jorge Gallardo and response-Mike Poltorak

Hello, everybody. I am currently doing my doctoral research on how depression is addressed in an “intercultural mental health” space in Chile. On the one hand the Machi ( healer of Mapuche people) and his team. On the other hand, the psychiatrist and his team. What recommendations can you offer me to look at and analyse? I congratulate you on the film. It is inspiring and necessary.

42.42 Question-Kate Pourshariati and Robert Lemelson and response-Mike Poltorak

May I ask what her daughter Fine died from? It went by fast in the film and left me sad but confused

44.29- Question-Mary Good – Experience of mental health in ‘Eua (an island in the Tongan archipelago).

I had a question about mental health stigma and how this relates to healing in Tonga – I have noticed in my research on ‘Eua that visible mental illness is still pretty highly stigmatized, and depression and other‚ less visible‚ mental illnesses are hidden. But treatment by healers is valorized and considered ‚ maintaining tradition. How do healers (and biomedical practitioners) work to circumvent this stigma and help their patients?

45.25 Response-Mike Poltorak

48.18 Response- Patricia Fifita

50.12 Question– Lucy Baxter

The wife of one of Emeline’s patients depicted in the film differentiated between a “European sickness” and a “Tongan sickness” when talking about her husband’s illness – could you expand more on if / how people differentiate between the two, and if this is linked to whether they are likely to seek to be treated by traditional or biomedical healing practices? I really enjoyed the film, thank you so much

50.44 Response-Mike Poltorak

52.10 Response and question-Jessica Hardin

54.42 Response-Mike Poltorak

56.55 Question and comment-Andrew Beatty

Besides being visually stunning and deeply humane, the film is strikingly positive about both traditional healing AND psychiatry, with sympathetic and benign examples of each, even holding out the possibility of collaboration (in the spirit of GMH?). I wondered whether Tonga is happily unusual in this respect, or had Mike chosen not to spend screen time on the less benign, on the showmanship, and on the harm quite often caused by both kinds of practitioners. Robert Lemelson’s equally superb films have numerous, sometimes scary examples, and mostly end on a cautiously agnostic note. Is this a difference of ethnographer, subject, or location?

58.53 Response-Mike Poltorak

1.03.26 Question-Liam Hodgetts

Firstly, congratulations on the success of your film and its amazing reception. From your study and filming did you get a sense of whether biomedical doctors incorporate any traditional healing or was there any reference to cultural constructions of illness in their official training?

1.03.55 Response-Mike Poltorak

1.05.21 Concluding comments and thanks- Robert Lemelson and Alice Apley

Thank you all again for spending time with us today! Its been a pleasure. You can stay up to date with DER films and online events by signing up for our newsletter:





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