Video for Health, Transformation and Community

This website originally served to share information about the first documentary I made on Tonga, about the comedian Tevita Koloamatangi, nicknamed Tinitini. As I have made more films and thought about them in relation to visual anthropology, I have realized how much my time filming in Tonga has influenced my philosophy of filming and the very choices of what to film, and what projects to commit to. The value I give to video is profoundly linked to what I learnt in of the social value of video in Tonga. The epistemological claim of my video research is indicated by the name of the organisation under which I claim authorship, Potolahi Productions. Poto and lahi, together communicate a sense of intelligence in social awareness and engagement. It also references how my surname was jokingly Tonganised during my time in Tonga. Before arriving in Vava’u, I booked a room mispronouncing my name as Maika Potulahi (rather than Potolahi), not realizing that potulahi, with a u, signified very large testicles. The uproarious laughter at the end of the line, made me more careful in how I tried to Tonganise words, but also prompted curiousity in the potential of single words in particular contexts to precipitate laughter. No doubt my attraction to making a documentary about Tinitini was my intense curiosity about humour, and desire to be funny. Shared laughter was one of the great joys of being in Tonga over 18 months.

Since filming in Tonga in 1998 the internet has opened up an audience for video in a way I never anticipated. I find myself sitting on archival footage of events in Tonga, that are historical documents as well as potential reference points for diasporic populations in search of identity and connection. As researchers we have a wealth of information and resources on our hard drives and in our filing cabinets that could potentially be useful if only made accessible in an interesting way. I recall one Tongan thanking me for making Tongan comedy accessible to him, as he had been brought up speaking English. Watching my film had been transformative for him, it had also been transformative for me. Through the process of making the documentary I had learnt things about Tonga, about health, that I cannot imagine having learnt about otherwise. There was something about the knowledge emergent from working together on a common project, that was distinct from that of interviews and simply participating in community life. When I returned to the UK, editing and working on the footage kept an emotional link to friends in Tonga, that were not distancing but evocative of the experiences we had shared. I am still figuring it out, as I improvise from film project to project, but I think it spirals around the idea of a social health in meaningful and transformative social relationships. How social health relates to the health of communities and health in a biomedical and environmental sense is a key question of all my video projects. How the production and presentation of video facilitates a process of transformation has been a question ever since I started videoing healing in Tonga to better understand how it worked. For me a central motivation of making videos is to be able to gift and in the process feel part and recognized as part of a community.

I have felt a strong need to create this new website for several years as a reconciliation and integration of personal and transformative experiences others and I have had using video with the more distancing but also vital frame of visual anthropology to communicate the value of video in ways that wider audiences can receive and value. I hesitate to say ‘objective’ way, preferring to recognize a baseline of anthropological wisdom, that all knowledge is created ‘intersubjectively’.

I wish to present and make accessible my video and documentary work and to use the website as a means of better understanding the value of video to contributing to a public and engaged anthropology and myself as person wanting to contribute to social change.

The projects menu is in chronological order. It starts with Fun(d)raising which is on comedy in Tonga and for me very much helped me present aspects of Tongan life that I loved and allowed me to address the textual and wider epistemological and political challenges of representing life in Tonga. I didn’t know about Jean Rouch’s work at the time I started filming, but I think I aspired, like him, to a ‘shared anthropology’.

The second is ‘One Week West of Molkom’, which integrates video work with the community of Angsbacka, where I was a media volunteer over three years. I was inspired by a documentary called ‘Three Miles North of Molkom’ to visit this course centre and taste what I experienced while watching the documentary of authentic, yet not ideological, ways of relating filled with humour of people who I really liked on camera, and continued to like when I met them in person. I learnt a tremendous amount from spending time in Angsbacka, personally and also professionally. The presence and attention to honesty, cultivated by the community practice of sharing, has changed how I teach and helped me introduce a greater sense of vulnerability in how I communicate.

One tab is on teaching visual anthropology, which has served as a central pivot for my understanding of previous project and inspirations for others. Through teaching I have been able to share my practices and gained feedback from really inspiring students at Kent. I here present and link to student work of the last five years. This website is constructed on because I teach students to create  film blogs in this format. They now create interactive websites using a variety of formats inspired by idocumentary.  Visual anthropology is at the heart of my understanding the value of video and even though I did not know much about the discipline when I first started videoing in Tonga in 1998, it has been become one key pivot around which I have come to value and present the value of video to others.

Five Ways In, is a documentary on contact improvisation that very much draws on research on CI and is an example of sensuous anthropology. I have used CI to teach film making, and so the video also relates strongly to pedagogy. The process of making and screening the documentary is research that I am using to write about contact improvisation. This documentary has its own dedicated website.

The Healer and the Psychiatrist is the project I have been working on the longest. It attempts a visual dialogue between a healer and a psychiatrist who I have worked with since 1998, but who have not met. It was the most challenging to edit and so I left it till after I had become a better editor through completing One Week West of Molkom, which involved collaboration with the editor, John Murphy and editing ‘Five Ways In’. After Five Ways In was accepted in an international ethnographic film festival, I was more confident. I created a first cut of the Healer and the Psychiatrist for feedback, but it was the considerable editing work of Heidi Hiltebrand that transformed a long feedback cut into the narratively coherent and moving final version.

These are not the only video projects I have been involved in, but they are the ones that aimed at a particular output that could be screened in public. I have also filmed many weddings for friends and funerals in Tonga. In India I kept a video diary when researching on vaccination. I have also filmed family members in Poland in an attempt to better get to know my own ancestry. Some of my more vernacular video making I will introduce when it feels that they might be of use.

This website is in process, is part of a process that extends beyond what it can report. Likewise, attention to process, without overt focus on a goal, is most likely to deliver the embodied appreciation and transformation. This resonates strongly with medical anthropological work on efficacious healing. So here are a few aims, but they might change:

  1. To explore the value of video for anthropology and for myself as a person in relationship with the people I make videos and documentaries for. How can they be reconciled?
  2. To show the enduring influence in my video work of being in Tonga, and the value of video at the service of, and what research and transformative benefits and challenges that provides.
  3. To provide pedagogical material for students of visual anthropology at Kent and in other universities.
  4. Create a form of web-based, transformative, and therapeutic reflection that demonstrates and challenges what we understand by reflexivity. Just the sense that this is accessible to anyone online, for me encourages seriousness and authenticity.
  5. To ultimately find the values of video that I am happy to commit to in my own work, and to consider whether there is a need to argue for new values for video in anthropological research. I consider this as the artistic and ethnographic aim to find what contemporary criteria for ethnographic film would be?
  6. In the context of the neoliberal university where research outputs are increasingly being evaluated in terms of theoretical disciplinary contribution or in terms of impact, how can we best argue for the value of video as research.


If you don’t understand all or anything what I have written here, don’t worry. To paraphrase the charitable response of one member of a sharing group to another when she could not get what another was talking about in one of my favourite documentaries (Four Miles North of Molkom), ‘that’s just the way I write’. The implication being, that there was other ways to understand each other that don’t require words. The great thing about video is that you can relate to it, with or without my words.