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.

Short Synopsis

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.


Director of Photography,  Director and Producer    Dr Mike Poltorak

Film Editor       Heidi Hiltebrand

Translation       Sefita Hao’uli

Sound Design     Reto Stamm

Digital Colour Design        Andi Chu

Graphic Design         Sergio Constantini

Voiceover Advice     Silvana Ceschi

Documentary Educational Resources- order or pre-order here.


THE HEALER AND THE PSYCHIATRIST successfully presents two sides of the same coin, in traditional medicine and modern medicine. Both approach the same outcome of healing. Pacific researchers practice “talanoa,” an established format for generating discussion about complex topics used throughout the Pacific. Director Mike Poltorak, a lecturer at the University of Kent in Social Anthropology, has crafted a beautiful and empathic film, full of thought, humanity and discovery.

 Anderson Le- Hawaii International Film Festival 2020

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  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

The questions and issues that you raise in this film are so needed to be talked about and so interesting. I have so many more questions I want to ask you from watching this film. That is an indication of how successful it is because people want to know more and they want to have more discussion. And that is the key, creating more discussion.

Vea Mafile’o -Film Director (For My Father’s Kingdom)-Artist

The strength of this project is that there are a huge number of relationships that have contributed to this film. That is key for a documentary of this nature, especially when you are coming from outside.

Paul Janman- Film Director (Tongan Ark)

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.

 Hufanga He Ako moe Lotu Dr ‘Okusitino Mahina-Professor of Tongan Philosophy, Anthropology and Art- Vava’u Academy for Critical Inquiry and Applied Research, Vava’u, Kingdom of Tonga.

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 Southwick’s study, ‘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 -New Zealand Poet & Sociologist

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

So full of thought, humanity and discovery. And what beautiful and compelling people. So evident that they trust and love you.

Professor Hugh Brody

You have made a very important film Mike, a labor of love, a gift for the Tongan people you know and care about deeply. I found the journey you take the viewer on to be fascinating, if not riveting, and the content authentic and imbued with tender loving care. The people you feature in your film are generous and giving, of their time and their knowledge, and they obviously care very much about your efforts to tell their story your way. They trust you, and you have not let them down. I like very much your personal voice in the film, explaining your reasons for making the film, and your hopes for collaboration between healers and psychiatrists not just in Tonga, but also in many other parts of the Pacific and beyond. Your film took me back to Rotuma when I was growing up in the 1950s and 60s, and similar beliefs my own people had then, and probably today still, that need better understanding and illumination. You shine a spotlight on matters of life and death, a concern all humans share in common. Most importantly, you were able to reciprocate the Tongan people’s love and care for you in such a meaningful and generous manner. Congratulations!

Professor Vilsoni Hereniko

You can read Professor Hereniko’s  Authenticity in Cinema: Notes from the Pacific Islands here. 

The Healer and the Psychiatrist is a very moving and intense documentary  that speaks to the value of ethnographic research over a long period of time.  It  explores the value and limitations of Tongan indigenous and Western medicine. The traditional healer,  Emeline Lolohea, may have access to nature’s  abundance and the richness of spiritual knowledge but her husband Tevita’s tragic illness speaks to the need for better access to biomedicine. Dr Mapa Puloka combines psychiatry and what is valued in Tongan culture, but how much does the continuity of his novel practice and healing  depend on his individual efforts? This insightful and sensitive ethnographic documentary asks us to consider how  the treatment of illness and wellness can be ‘decolonised’ even in a country that was never colonised.

Associate Professor Jacquie Leckie -Victoria University of Wellington, NZ  & University of Newcastle, Australia. Author of Colonizing Madness.

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. 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

The film is the result of 20 years research and collaboration in Tonga. When I first arrived in in Tonga I brought a camera to document healing encounters because I realised the impossibility of noting everything on pen and paper. In Vava’u people asked me to record important events such as funerals, rugby matches, birthdays and church feasts to share the videos with families overseas as a form of gift for help given. The documentary aims to integrate these two different uses of video, as documentation and as a form of socially transformative communication, an audio/visual gift.

A feedback version was created from footage filmed in 2011, 2005 and 1998. It 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. Sections were screened at the Ecologies of Mind Workshop in May 2019 in Freie Universität (FU) Berlin.

Future Screenings

ASA 2021 (Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK and Commonwealth): Responsibility. Online, 29 March- 1 April 2021

Society for Visual Anthropology Film and Media Festival (SVAFMF). BEST FEATURE FILMOnline free to view -1-10 December 2020.
Hawaii International Film Festival-Pacific Showcase
November 5-29, 2020- Honolulu, US
View here.
Garifuna International Indigenous Film Festival.  November 2020. Venice, California. Official Selection.  (Postponed from May due to Covid-19).
Eyes and Lenses Film Festival
October 25th -Warsaw, Poland- Programme here
Collected Voices Film Festival
October 15-30, 2020- Chicago, US- 15$ for festival pass. Official Selection. Register here.

Harvard University. Co-hosted by Department of Global Health and Social Medicine, Harvard Medical School & Cultural Survival. Cambridge, USA. 20 April 2020 (Postponed due to Covid-19)

The first Biennial Conference of the European Network for Psychological Anthropology (ENPA), Helsinki, Finland.  2-4 June 2020 (Postponed to 2021 due to Covid 19)

Past Festival and Conference Screenings

SSPC Annual Meeting. Rhode Island. USA.  9th October 2020. Full programme here.

 October 8/9 2020 -Sydney,  Australia

Riga Pasaules Film Festival. 17th to 20th September 2020. Riga. Latvia. Official Selection (Postponed from the 23-26th April  due to Covid-19)Screen Shot 2020-08-18 at 10.30.09

German International Ethnographic Film Festival. 15th May 2020. Göttingen, German. Official Selection. (Online due to Covid 19)-GIEFF_2020_Catalogue

LIDF (London International Documentary Film Festival). 30th November 2019. London, UK.  Official Selection.

Past Community and University Screenings

Religious Healing and Sacred Health Curing: Online Documentary Film Program and Debate (Week 4-22nd August 2020-10am UK Time-21.00 Auckland) A virtual documentary film presentation and debate organized by the Network of the Anthropology of the Middle East and Central Eurasia of EASA in collaboration with the Religion and Society Research Cluster, Western Sydney University. More information about  the series here. Webinar introduction and Q and A can be seen here.

MAHASSA program- Heidelberg University-Germany. 9th June 2020.

Visual Dialogues-Film Studies and the Granada Centre for Visual Anthropology, The University of Manchester. 27 February 2020.

Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Groningen, Groningen. The Netherlands. 6 January 2020.

Gulbenkian Cinema. University of Kent. 13 November 2019.

Agora Cinema. La Trobe University. Bundoora. 9 September 2019.

Mangere Arts Centre. Auckland. 12 September 2019. See feedback from screening here.

Reviews and Press

ERIC blog– 14 November 2019

BBC Radio Kent -Dominic King Show- 12 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.

A resource booklet on cultural competence for treating Pacific Islander patients produced by Mauri Ora for the Medical Council of New Zealand.
A key publication in Pacific Health dialogue on finding the interface between cultural understandings.

Stills from Documentary