I lived in Vava’u and Tongatapu for 18 months between 1998 and 2000 doing research for my PhD in Social Anthropology on traditional healing for spirit caused conditions. I also collaborated with Dr Mapa Puloka to compare treatment for mental illness in the community and within the psychiatric unit. I have published several articles in the Contemporary Pacific and in Oceania.You can read my thesis here.
Living in the community and being apprenticed to a traditional healer enabled me to learn Tongan.
I took a Hi8 video camera to film local events and the process of traditional healing. By chance, towards the end of my research in November 1999 I filmed a five hour fundraising concert in Vava’u. At the time I did not realize the history of Tongan comedy nor understood most of the jokes. The many requests for copies made me realize that here was something special and unique and that understanding Tinitini’s humour would allow a very different perspective on Tonga to emerge, very different to the typical press accounts of Tonga or Tongans.
On return to the UK, the video kept my love for Vava’u alive. I vowed to translate as much as I could and return to Tonga to involve the key comedians in the making of a documentary. After many hours of watching and translating the jokes I returned in 2005 and over a week filmed explanations of the different skits with the people of Pangaimotu, including Tinitini’s mother.
The labour of love then began. Over three years, on evenings and weekends, I slowly edited the film on my PowerBook G4 into a story sensitive to the wishes of the comedians and reflective of humorous qualities of life in Vava’u. The key themes of the translatability and the social criticism of Tongan comedy emerged. Previews in 2007 of a longer version of the documentary to Tinitini and Tongan audiences in New Zealand and Tonga helped me with particularly difficult translations and set the story line for the current globally accessible version. The incredible joy and laughter of the audiences convinced me that the documentary warranted a wider audience and that it might also have a serious purpose. The aims are to present Tongan comedy to a wider audience and to provide an accessible and sensitive window into the dilemmas of modern Tonga. One future goal is to promote the use of comedy in culturally sensitive areas of public health promotion such as mental illness, diabetes and cardiovascular disorders.
The documentary is the result of a long collaboration with the comedian, Tinitini (Tevita Koloamatangi) and the people of Vava’u and was originally dedicated to Tinitini’s mother, and my father, both who died before the film was completed. It is now also dedicated to Siua Tutone, who died from complications of diabetes. You can contact me at:
mikepoltorak (at) hotmail.com