Origins and Inspiration
Many people have asked me how ‘Fun(d)raising’ relates to visual anthropology. When I first started making the film I regarded it as a form of ethnographically and epistemologically led filmmaking and as an intervention into the politics of representation of Tonga. It emerged out of the vernacular use of video to record long funerals, weddings and other events, which then would be sent to relatives overseas to thank them for their help. I had recorded many such events on the request of friends and distributed them for free. I became very aware of the power of these films to connect people at long distances, and as a way of reminding people how they were connected. At many funerals thousands of people may queue to kiss the deceased. A visual record of those people is fascinating to family members of the deceased.
The theme, focus and purpose of the film was in a sense chosen for me. It was prompted by the enthusiasm of Tongan friends and the community who never stopped asking for copies of a comedy concert by Tinitini and his companions in the centre of Neiafu I fortuitously recorded in 1999. It was a result of recording this concert that I then became aware of the importance of travelling comedy shows in raising money for churches and other organisations. I also saw within the comedy performance a unique opportunity to represent aspects of life in Tonga I did not see within the anthropological literature of Tonga. Nor were these qualities evoked in other visual and filmic representations of Tonga. The playful, subversive and humorous qualities of comedy performances, that I felt offered a counterpoint to the more structural and political economic explanations of Tongan culture, and other documentary films on Tonga. After I left Tonga, they served as the most effective reminder of the qualities of life in Tonga, and reminded me of what I most enjoyed about living there. In the performance were individuals, playing with cultural ideas and norms in very creative and novel ways. Making a film examining the motivations of their comedy was a visual means of engaging with the anthropology of the subject through a foregrounding of creativity and agency in cultural practice. Like Tongan comedy itself, the production of the film was also improvised and syncretic, as I deliberately set out to produce it as a performance, not as a contribution to a established genre of filmmaking of visual representation.
Ethnographic Film and Visual Anthropology
The film’s contribution to visual anthropology relate to the bracketing of theoretical concerns in favour of the epistemological supported aim of the film as a form of gift and intervention. By contrast to the groundbreaking Granada TV Disappearing World series, ‘Fun(d)raising’ was not led by the interaction of an anthropologist and filmmaker. I was both. Nor did I attempt to establish a mandate through satisfying the disputed criteria of what constitutes an ethnographic film. There is, for example, no real time narrative drive focussed on a key event or progression of events. Nor do I focus on a cultural dilemma, somehow resolved by the end of the documentary. This is partly because the film is split between footage of a concert of a comedy concert in 1999 and commentary on that concert and staged scenes explaining comedy to a wider audience. I do not draw attention to the archival characteristics of the original concert recording to prompt revelatory or reflexive insights from the comedians, as at the time of completion, Tinitini were performing very similar performances.
If there is any structural influence, it is less the explanatory mode of documentary and some ethnographic films, and more the TV inspired format where celebrities and experts comment humorously on a selected list of best songs or film from a particular decade, for example. These programmes build a cosy sense of humorous familiarity between the people and products being reviewed and the commentators. Drawing on this form was a way to engage more significantly with one of the intended audience, and to validate Tongan comedy in a form, that also made the best use of the footage I had.
However, more that anything the structure of the film is driven by the need to keep a narrative integrity of the skits featured and to present some of the best and most popular comedic moments for a Tongan audience. The complete concert had been distributed and sold as a DVD and had been on U Tube for a considerable time before the final edit, and so it was possible to see which parts of which performances were watched most frequently. Since the original posting in November 2008, the most popular skit has been viewed close to twenty thousand times. Given an approximate global population of approximately 200, 000 people and limited access to high speed internet in Tonga, this suggests considerable reach and popularity. The United States and New Zealand have the highest audience figures, followed by Australia.
The intended audiences were a key consideration. Firstly, the participants in the film direct their explanations to a non-Tongan speaking audience, who they wish to better understand their comedy, through the use of translation in the form of subtitles and performed explanations. Secondly, the film is a celebration of the generosity of the Tongan people who have contributed to fundraising over the many years of performances. This is most clearly demonstrated at the end of the film, where the end of the concert is followed by a thanks from the comedians to the whole of Tonga for their generosity. This may be regarded as ethnographically driven editing. The film has some claim for being participative, in the sense that long term collaboration and dialogue made it possible. The journey around the island to explain the origin and reasons for their comedy was a form of ethno-fiction, to a less developed extent than in Rouch’s films. It was not possible to screen footage back on a day by day basis, so the subjects of the film saw a first version after a first cut several years after the explanatory footage was shot. Feedback on the film was encorporated into the final version, but this was not made evident in the film itself. The journey around the island of Vava’u, also offered snapshots of different aspects of life on the island, offering contexts to appreciate Tongan comedy, but not explain it.
Reception and Impact
The film has been very popular with Tongan audiences and is screened regularly on the Tongan Media Network TV channel in Tonga. This is perhaps because much of what the documentary presents is familiar to Tongans, though the form of its representation and the commentary is new. Only recently have Tongan led TV programmes appeared on Tongan media networks, and few draw inspiration from documentary filmmaking traditions.
The film has done less well in documentary film festivals. This is because the film had low production values and has not engaged sufficiently with the aesthetics of current documentary narrative styles. After not being accepted at what I regarded as the most relevant film festivals, I lost enthusiasm for gaining recognition that acceptance implies, and plumped for the wider global audience that putting the film on the internet facilitates.
It is difficult to assess the impact of the film on either the appreciation of Tongan comedy or on changes in filmmaking in Tonga. One impact, however, is confirmed by a younger generation’s familiarity with Tinitini’s comedy without ever having seen any of his live performances. Tinitini himself reported how many more young people approach him having seen the film on TV or on bootlegged DVDs of the original concert. I have received personal thanks from diasporic Tongans brought up speaking only English, who considered the translation aim of the film, as offering them a unique insight into their own culture.
Another aim that the film has not yet fully capitalised on uses the stories of some of the stars as a vehicle for health promotion. Siua, one of the key characters in the documentary, died from complications of diabetes a year after he saw a first cut of the documentary while in hospital after having a leg amputated. One personal aim I had was to make a follow up film that would somehow use his personal story to raised issues of diabetes prevention and treatment. This has not been realised, because the complexities of Siua’s life history, made for a overly complex history. So at the moment, the people drawn to watch the documentary on the Potolahi Productions website, are presented with a few links to relevant health promotion and local clinics.
The process of imagining an effective collaborative intervention in diabetes prevention, prompted a return to a more ethnographic and narrative based filming style for ‘The Healer, the Psychiatrist and I’. Dialogue and building relationship are still central but with the aim of finding links between traditional healing, as practiced by a healer who I have been working with for more than ten years, and the well known psychiatrist, Dr Mapa Puloka. Since completing Fun(d)raising, I have become a lot more familiar with current documentary filming styles and now have access to better quality cameras. Fun(d)raising was filmed on small Sony Hi8 and Mini DV cameras. My current projects are filmed in HD, engage more with current documentary styles. They also aim for a wider audience interested in the contrast and similarities between traditional and psychiatric treatment for mental illness.