Friday, July 22, 2011

Hollywood’s misconceptions about Papua New Guinea

By Nou Vada

  “I’m finished with this crap. I’m going to Papua New Guinea. I’m outa here. I’m going off the grid. No more franchises. No more botox. No more ‘Oh, let’s clone another sheep’... and certainly no more sexual harassment suites...”  
These are the remarks made by one of the characters in the 2008 Hollywood flick Accepted, starring Justin Long (Die Hard 4.0), Jonah Hill (The Rocker) and Maria Thayer. The character in question – what I’ll describe as a cynical old man – speaks of Papua New Guinea as a care-free, backward country where progress and civil ethics are irrelevant in society. To another 2008 Hollywood flick, The Condemned, starring World Wrestling Entertainment superstar Stone Cold Steve Austin, Papua New Guinea is the host country to a globally broadcast free-for-all reality show where the contestants – hard-core criminals from around the world – are let out into the Sepik jungles to kill each other, the last surviving contestant winning his freedom. Accepted and The Condemned are examples of film that portray a bad image of Papua New Guinea to the world. These films impress on movie-goers everywhere that Papua New Guinea is an outrageously dangerous place to visit. 
Then there are films which completely distort Papua New Guinean culture. There are so many I’ve seen and would mention if I had the time to properly research them, but I’ll mention two. I suspect many Papua New Guineans did notice that in the cannibal Island in the Caribbean that Captain Jack Sparrow (played by Johnny Depp) deserts to in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, the face-paint worn by a couple of natives is distinctly Papua New Guinean; the most obvious of these is the bright yellow of the Wigmen of Southern Highlands and Hela, which in the film, is worn by one such cannibal native of the West Indies. One more film comes to mind. Bruce Lee in New Guinea, a flick made after the death of the real Bruce Lee and was a product of the Kung-Fu craze that had engulfed popular culture in the 1970s and 1980s. In that film, the Bruce Lee inspired protagonist sets off to investigate a special type of martial arts practiced in the New Guinea Islands. The film’s depiction of New Guinea Islanders is awful. Papua New Guinean natives are played by Asians. The bilas these ‘natives’ adorn themselves with are those of American Indians. I recall now my father in a movie-buff’s rage taking the disc out of the VCD player and breaking it.
There are so many more examples of inaccurate and ignorant portrayals of Papua New Guinean society and culture in motion pictures. The issue I put forward to whoever else noticed was why this was so. General awareness of Papua New Guinea around the world is poor. Those who have heard of Papua New Guinea will usually say the things films like Accepted and The Condemned present; that Papua New Guinea is a primitive and dangerous yet beautiful exotic paradise. Our efforts to turn this country into an international tourist destination are made difficult with such an existing global perception of our country. I wondered why big budget Hollywood film franchises like Pirates of the Caribbean would make such ignorant blunders and so I raised the question with one of UPNG’s Art and Culture experts; the image of the ‘Asian-apache’ New Guinea Islanders and the touch-down of a G6 private jet aircraft in what could only be a fabled international airport in the bush of Aitape as in The Condemned were fresh in my mind.

The expert’s response was as enlightening as it was heavy. “Papua New Guineans are partly to blame for all this”, he said, referring to the mis-portrayals of our country in film. I asked him how it could be. “Well, you people haven’t done enough films about yourselves and your country,” came the response. I felt the devastation of this truth hit me hard. Harder still was this confused feeling I felt that I was somehow personally blameworthy for this truth. I had championed the chorus of condemnation against Hollywood and film industries elsewhere for portraying Papua New Guinean society and culture so negligently, never once had I stopped that this negligent portrayal was simply the by-product of our own inability to show the film makers of the world and the world at large on film what real Papua New Guinean society and culture is. Film makers and screen-writers aren’t cultural anthropologists; the most primary knowledge of content they’ll have recourse to is the work of other film makers rather than academic sources. The thought was profound. Papua New Guinea hasn’t made enough films about Papua New Guineans and Papua New Guinea for film makers elsewhere to know exactly what Papua New Guinea is and looks like.

The gloominess gave way to a feeling of urgency. I returned to my dorm, determined as ever to settle a screen-play the general idea of which had been sifting around in my mind for quite a while. The setting of the story is UPNG in the present. I imagined it would be at its core a love story, but I’d throw in a bit of socio-political undertones as well. In all honesty, I hadn’t decided how this love story would unfold. To that extent some of my friends came in with different angles and plots and twists to these plots; mostly derived from their own experiences in UPNG. Over the next few nights we discussed this as a yet unwritten screenplay. We thought of the quirky characters we could put in, the contemporary and political symbolism and imagery we could deploy. We decided a policeman would be a character and in honour of the Major we were studying, we’d put a Law student in the story – a kind of tortured soul. I was interested in the music we could use. I thought Wass Kadoi’s Vaisi would be a good soundtrack for a montage scene in the film.
The screenplay is still not written. Like many other good ideas Papua New Guinea literary artists wish to pursue, there is no clear future for such a screenplay if I finished it tomorrow. We need a film industry in Papua New Guinea. The true fault of the current inaccuracy and ignorance in portraying PNG in film lies with Papua New Guinea itself. Not to pardon the blunders of film makers, but this is the true gist of the issue.

Nou Vada is our regular guest writer on this blog and the National Weekender.