Archive for January, 2011

Review: “South Pacific” documentary (BBC, 2009)

Posted in Fieldwork (Melanesia), Melanesia, Oceania, Rapa Nui, Torres Islands, Vanuatu on January 1, 2011 by salul

A little under two years ago, in early 2008, I arrived in the Torres Islands for a return fieldwork visit. I soon discovered that I had narrowly missed a film crew from the Beeb who had left two weeks previously. As I understood it, they had spent most of their time on the small islet of Metoma, under the care of Jean Pierre Laloyer, the senior member and head of the family who lives on and claims ancestral possession of Metoma (As is the case in many of these instances, this is a recent development and disputed by a few people in the Torres; but it seems secure since nobody else has been able to muster enough ‘counter’ proof of possession to seriously challenge the Laloyer claim. I digress a bit, but “uncle Jean” came to mind because the series producers cast him in the role of timeless, untroubled inhabitant of a small slice of paradise).

The object of the BBC film crew’s interest in Metoma was to obtain high quality footage of the notorious Birgus latro (coconut crab), for which this tiny islet has become well known in Vanuatu, given the relatively good health and large numbers that characterise its isolated population. This association is recent, partly a result of Jean Pierre having placed a ban on crab hunting several years ago. But I digress.

My friend David Hunt holding up a Birgus latro on Tegua Island (2010)

The resulting footage, as observed in the first episode of the BBC’s recent documentary series “South Pacific” is really magnificent. Certainly, it is unique – and I say this having observed Birgus and pursued research related to it for over a decade. The footage is, in this respect, very much in line with the  astounding quality most of the other clips of Pacific Islands’ wildlife which constitute the centrepiece of this series. Prominent examples include the astonishing panoramic of tens of thousands of migrating emperor pinguins on Macquarie Island, in the extreme southern reaches of New Zealand’s Southern Oceanic possessions; the shoot of graceful Galapagos Islands’ penguins and sea lions; a saltwater crocodile off the Weather Coast of Guadalcanal; and the extremely shy dingiso in the forested highlands of Papua New Guinea. There’s more, but my intention is not to offer a comprehensive list, but an overall commentary.

If we are to judge it on the basis of its intending to be primarily a wildlife documentary, I think that this series is very successful on several counts, one of which is the tenacity and technical expertise with which the production team pursued their prey. Moreover, it scores high marks for focusing the audience’s attention, throughout at least two episodes, on the particularities of biogeography and the gradually declining biodiversity of Pacific Islands as one moves from West (New Guinea) to East (Island Melanesia; Central Polynesia), North East (Hawai’i) and eventually South-West (Aotearoa) across the Ocean. Amazing footage aside, the clear and informative manner in which the faunal and floral population of the Pacific Islands played out over tens of thousands of years has not, to the best of my awareness, been explained with such care in a documentary series of this kind before. The fact that my own research focuses on anthropological ecology but that even I learned a few new facts from this series is really the best tribute I can pay to the way in which the producers successfully portrayed the historical ecology of the Pacific here. Finally, there is also the matter of the really nice musical score, and various tracks employed throughout, some of which I understand to be from contemporary Maori groups. All of this makes for a really satisfying experience.

Having said that, it is perhaps a slightly worrying sign of how much more demanding the industry and cynical we (the viewing public) have become over the past three or four decades that the most serious wildlife documentary teams worldwide (and the beeb is up there with NG, Discovery and others) now find it absolutely indispensable to go to enormous, sometimes excessive, lengths to try to produce “new”, hence attractive footage in order to fulfill the overblown expectations of a ho-hum public and an industry that is obsessed with ratings and record-breaking firsts.

In this regard, while I think that it is to the credit of the Beeb people that they added a section titled “South Pacific Diaries” at the end of each episode that explains the logistical obstacles that their various photographers and staff had to overcome to obtain this or that particular piece of outstanding footage, it is also slightly annoying how they seem to feel they had to inflate

The Selva River in Vanua Lava. Here be salties (in the recent past).

the challenges involved in these procedures in order to provoke an (even greater?) sense of awe in their viewers.

For example, what are we to think when the particular photographer who was chasing after saltwater crocodiles in the Solomons seems to push the claim that the very presence of these creatures as far East as the Solomons is almost the stuff of legend? Well, actually, it isn’t. That should be clear simply from viewing the horrendous effects of the attacks of these creatures on local villagers. But, most importantly, the presence of these creatures has been confirmed for many years even further East, in Vanua Lava (Banks Islands) for example, where a couple of crocs terrorised the local population in the 1980s, and even as far afield as Fiji. (See here for a recent article explaining the manner in which these creatures appear to displace themselves across the vast distances between archipalagi in the South West Pacific.)

The issue here is that one is often left with the feeling that some wildlife photographers and support staff seem to feel the need to make exaggerated claims upon processes that imply entering places that are really not all that dangerous or inaccessible – depending, of course, on what exactly it is you intend to do there. It is therefore incumbent on the particular intention of those entering that can make it all seem so much more complicated – from the simple fact of having to lug tonnes of equipment to the far reaches of the planet, for starters. So while I would not for a moment dispute the various logistical difficulties through which these teams sometimes have put themselves in order to bring us their amazing footage, I do find it irritating that there is a tendency to trump up the exotic and the dangerous in the whole process, as though they were supermen entering dangerous, inhuman conditions in otherwise uninhabitable and unwelcome sites.

My point is this: that kind of hyperbole doesn’t usually stand up to the fact that many of the contexts into which they are getting themselves happen to have sustained local populations for thousands of years. Not to mention ever greater numbers of passing visitors -from thrill-seeking backpackers to civil servants to missionaries- whose very presence and everyday experiences tend to cast the overblown representations of the hardy Western camerapeople in a rather less than flattering light.

And I’m sorry if I seem curmudgeonly here, but for years I have observed how various different sorts of passersby to areas like North Vanuatu or the South East Solomons really come to inhabit their make-believe worlds of adventure, excitement and difficulty even while they’re in the very presence of people with far less kit and certainly a less inflated sense of themselves who happen to call those faraway places “home”. I am reminded of an especially unpleasant photographer for the French division of National Geographic who, as he passed through North Vanuatu on his way to Vanikoro with the aid of a massive crew of scientists and French marines aboard a rather hypermodern navy frigate out of Nouméa, attempted to convince me that they were to be the “first white people” who were to disembark and spend a few nights on Vanikoro and other remote and dangerous places…like the Torres Islands.

Not so alien, after all.

When I reminded him that permanent contact with Europeans had been established in both regions since the mid-nineteenth century and that I myself had been residing for over a year in the Torres he simply ignored me. (This, by the way, mirrors my experience with many other foreigners arriving in the Torres; the presence of a white man among the savages just really seems to generate a sense of total disinterest, and most of them cope with it by ignoring it away rather than facing up to the fact that they are not so “remote” or amazing as they would like to think). To their credit, this guy’s support staff suppressed some cynical smiles and threw a wink my way, but I was not impressed. Months later, I ran into an image of just this same photographer affecting an extremely manly and “explorateur”-like pose as he stood in the middle of a nasty-looking swamp in Vanikoro, within the pages of the NG magazine dedicated to that particular expedition’s results. I have no patience for these displays. But I digress (again).

So apart from my genuine admiration for the wildlife shoots, and my particular annoyance with the reproduction of exotic stereotypes, what else did I make of the “South Pacific” documentary?

Well, at the risk of cementing my reputation as a hypercritical curmudgeon, I will say that I have two other significant quibbles regarding the manner in which the producers chose to represent the Pacific Islands in this particular series. Both are related not to wildlife -arguably the strong point, indeed the main point, of the show- but to the societies of some of the places in which they filmed. I am thinking especially of the first and fifth episodes, the only ones in which human cultures are specifically addressed. The other episodes, as I recall, only mention human history and actions tangentially, in ways that make much more sense within a documentary series that is meant to be dedicated to non-human environmental phenomena and creatures, and not to “culture” or history per se.

The first episode, “Ocean of Islands”, includes bits of footage and trivia on populations in South Raga and Tanna (Vanuatu), as well as Anuta Island in the SE Solomons. Sadly, as far as Vanuatu is concerned, they seem to have gone for the easy catch of the same old exotic images of Vanuatu that virtually every other visitor, tour guide and photographer go – paying enormous amounts of money in order to obtain original footage of the inevitable Pentecost “land dive” (Naghol) and the Tannese Toka dance. As for the land dive, I must respectfully declare my vision of it as a hyped up event which, although based on the revival of a genuine seasonal agricultural ritual, long ago morphed into a particularly tiring form of tourist-oriented theatre accessible mainly to non-locals -wealthy tourists and foreign film crews come to mind- willing to part with hundreds of dollars for the right to record or snap pictures of the event. Think this is a bit harsh? Come on, a cursory search easily proves my point (e.g. the NG’s most recent version of the event, which, although happily sanitised for the broader reading and viewing public, was actually fraught with problems given the excessive monetary demands of locals on the reporters and photographers, and their unseemly reactions to said demands – as several of us learned at the time).

Even though the angles and slow motion of the high-definition footage obtained by the BBC of Raga land divers is, once again, an impressive and likely “first-ever” stunt, it really serves no relevant point regarding the place of local cultural practices and

The entry signpost for the Vatthe Conservation Area, in Big Bay (Santo), in 2004; an early and important local initiative in environmental management in Vanuatu.

knowledge in relation to Pacific Islands’ wildlife. Seems to me it would have been infinitely more interesting to present some of the many rather less folkloric but environmentally significant actions that are being taken in local communities across Island Melanesia to revive traditional environmental knowledges and marine resource management -several examples from Malakula and Santo come to mind. Sadly, both the depiction of the Raga land divers and the Tannese Toka dancers fixates on images of semi-naked (hence firmly premodern) islanders seemingly absorbed in timeless, if colourful, ritual acts.

The film crew did slightly better when it came to presenting life on Anuta. Both the footage and the manner in which they represent local environmental knowledge in action is rather more interesting, even though once again they lay it on a bit when it comes to highlighting how “isolated” and tiny this place is. Hint: so are most other islands in Remote Oceania, but then that’s one of the reasons that Polynesian migrations and inter-island links are so fascinating. They are anything BUT isolated. They did themselves no favour when they then bizarrely decided to contrast the “ecocidal” Rapa Nui with the rather more “eco-friendly” Anutans, a comparison that is a bit strained, considering that in episode five (“Strange Islands”) they again represent Easter Island as a desolate and ecologically damaged place, but then go on to nuance the tired “Collapse” version of Rapa Nui history with some of the newer thinking on the ecological changes that transformed that island’s landscape as a

Rapa Nui dance troupe in Hanga Roa (Aug. 2010). Not quite the extinct, ecocidal primitives.

result of human contact, between 800 and 600 years ago (think Terry Hunt et al regarding the Polynesian rat and its appetite for the nut of the extinct Jubaea palm). Nevertheless, it seems that the fact that they had Rick Feinberg on as a consultant for their stint on Anuta was important in helping to improve their overall representation of the place and its people.

For all its exaggeration of the isolation and tiny dimensions of Anuta, the documentary team’s depiction actually does come across as more culturally sensitive and informative…again, in relation to the principal theme of this series, which is meant to be the environment and animals of the Pacific Islands. Moral of this particular story? It pays to get a hold a good anthropologist as adviser!

In sum, I would enthusiastically recommend this series for the sheer ambition and quality of its footage, and because it does manage to accurately and informatively convey a set of relevant data and images regarding the history and present state of important aspects of the Pacific Islands’ geography, wildlife and environments. It does so in ways which I had not come across before in other documentaries about the region (I was, BTW, especially pleased and impressed with their depiction of the Palolo worm, a process for which I was contacted early in the show’s production, back in late ’07 or early ’08, but in which I eventually had no direct hand). However, the series gets rather lower marks regarding the strange, almost capricious, and generally fragmented and inaccurate ways in which local cultural practices and contexts are inserted.

NOTE (inserted 3-06-11): The theme music for the series is taken from the rendering of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” performed by the late great Iz Kamakawiwo’ole, a legend of contemporary Hawaiian music.