The Healer and the Psychiatrist 2019, 76 mins


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 discussion offers challenges and opportunities to help address the growing global mental health crisis.


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


Research background

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. Informed by Tongan’s use of funeral videos for creating connections with relatives and friends located in New Zealand, Australia and the USA, this documentary attempts 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 is informed by visual anthropological theorising 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.

Inspired in part by Jean Rouch’s aspiration of 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 is in question. This documentary will serve as a vehicle for conversations and policy actions on the opportunities of greater collaboration between traditional and biomedical medicine, and the imagining of new healing futures for Tonga as well as new possibilities in other contexts, such as New Zealand, where the development of a public psychiatry sensitive to traditional healing will 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 a very dramatic and punitive Maori and Samoan relationship with spirits.  In the Healer and the Psychiatrist spirits are familial and much more everyday, 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.


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