The Healer and the Psychiatrist 2019, 74 min
On the South Pacific Island group of Vava’u, the traditional healer Emeline Lolohea treats people affected by spirits. One day away by ferry, the only Tongan Psychiatrist Dr Mapa Puloka has established a public psychiatry well known across the region. Though they have never met in person, this film creates a dialogue between them on the nature of mental illness and spiritual affliction. Their commitment and transformative communication offers challenges and opportunities to help address the growing global mental health crisis.
In the South Pacific Island group of Tonga, a traditional healer and a Psychiatrist treat spiritual affliction and mental illness in challenging and inspirational ways.
Camera and Director Dr Mike Poltorak
Film Editor Heidi Hiltebrand
Translation Sefita Hao’uli
Sound Design Reto Stamm
Digital Colour Design Andi Chu
Graphic Design Sergio Constantini
This is going to be a valuable resource for mental health here in New Zealand and in Tonga. The reason being the Government has finally agreed that the healing ought to happen, or the system, closer to the community. What really touched someone from the front line perspective, is how you had culture, community and clinical knowledge come together and connected up but also the story itself reminded me when the system fails it costs lives. This is something for us to be mindful of.
Pauline Taufa -Clinical Psychologist
It was mafana [inwardly moving or exhilarating] and a little disturbing at the same time for me. That Tongan paradox. There is this line from Margaret Southwark’s PhD, ‘when you have disconnected discourses it is disconnected outcomes for that person’. The more that the two knowledge systems that understand the same symptoms so differently can integrate, then those of us who have those symptoms and go through both systems, will be much more likely to have healing. [the film] It’s beautiful, really beautiful.
Dr Karlo Mila
One of the things that really moved me personally is how you are able to tell the story of Emeline the traditional healer so that everyone knows the effectiveness of these people. But what is more touching is the challenges we have in the Western paradigm. Dr Mapa Puloka, Dr Alani, the frustrations that we have. They have the knowledge of both worlds, yet, they are being restricted within the biomedical model. When you see Emeline and her freedom to go around and meet people in that setting and Mapa and Alani know that but are restricted.
Dr Sione Vaka-Senior Lecturer-AUT
There is a dire need for the two ways of healing the so called scientific medicine and the Tongan medicine to converse a lot more than what has already been happening . What came across to us viewers of this most beautiful film is there is less talanoa and there needs to be a lot more conversation. We are dealing with different way of dealing with one and the same reality, not two different realities and we need to have more talanoa.
This documentary and visual intervention is based on long term medical anthropology research and collaboration since 1998 with the Vava’uan spirit healer Emeline Lolohea and the Tongan Psychiatrist, Dr Mapa Puloka. Inspired by Tongan use of funeral videos for creating connections with relatives and friends located in New Zealand, Australia and the USA, this documentary creates a video conversation between positions on the influence of spirits in the sickness of the living that are popularly regarded as contradictory. It is based on extensive research on mental health and Tongan traditional healing (Poltorak 2007, 2010, 2013, 2016) and video recorded as part of research.
We explore Tonga’s health challenges from the perspective of a healer and her family, doctors, patients and caregivers, and the value they give to Tongan medicine and the challenges of public health provision. The extraordinary dedication and commitment to the value of giving and being available to heal, and involvement in the lives of their patients is common to both the healer and psychiatrist. The documentary embraces visual anthropological insights on the inquisitive camera and presence of filmmaker, video elicitation, use of archival footage, the use of video messaging for diagnosis, the reception of mainstream movies and the vital process of feedback.
Jean Rouch aspired and argued for a ‘shared anthropology’. The process of production of this documentary is attentive to multiple and diverse audiences: first to the participants in the film, secondly to the extended Tongan community and those engaged in understanding and representing it, thirdly to those working within a global health paradigm and finally to an audience interested in mental health but with little knowledge of Tonga. The ethnographic, interventionist and documentary credibility of this documentary rests on the ability to move these multiple audiences to greater appreciation and action.
The future of Emeline Lolohea’s and Dr Mapa Puloka’s healing practices and initiatives is fragile. This documentary will encourage conversations and policy actions on the opportunities of greater collaboration between traditional and biomedical medicine. Imagining new healing futures for Tonga requires collaboration in New Zealand where there is a large, active and engaged Tongan diaspora. In New Zealand the development of a public psychiatry sensitive to traditional healing will also bring positive health outcomes.
In New Zealand two recent films, Belief: The Possession of Janet Moses ( a documentary, 2015) and One Thousand Ropes (drama, 2017) frame very dramatic relationship with spirits. In the Healer and the Psychiatrist spirits are familial and the relationship between their actions, sickness and access to health care very clear. The message of the film is of great importance to encourage a growing expansion of mental health services around the world to engage sensitively and productively with traditional ideas and healers.
Process and Feedback
A feedback version of the film based on footage filmed in 2011, 2005 and 1998 was screened in New Zealand (AUT & Onehunga), Tongatapu (‘Atenisi University, Lo’au University and the Psychiatric Unit) and Vava’u (Tefisi) in October 2018. Further filming and research in October and November 2018 was informed by feedback to ensure engagement with contemporary issues and update the current situation of the key protagonists.
LIDF (London International Documentary Film Festival). 30th November 2019. SOAS (UK Premiere) Official Selection.
Agora Cinema. La Trobe University. Bundoora. 9 September 2019.
Mangere Arts Centre. Auckland. 12 September 2019.
Gulbenkian Cinema. University of Kent. 13 November 2019.
The doctoral thesis on which this documentary draws can be read here.
Dr Karlo Mila speaks about her mental health challenges and relationship with Tongan spirits on an Out of My Mind podcast.
Stills from Documentary