Monday, September 12, 2011

Filmmakers explore Pacific identity in Australia

 Nic Maclellan

It’s a cold night in the western suburbs of Melbourne. But the Footscray Community Centre is alive with song and dance, with a tanoa of kava in the corner and a feast prepared by the local West Papuan community.
A crowd has gathered for the launch of “Pacific Stories”, a series of eight short films made by Pacific islanders living in Australia.

Unlike New Zealand, Pacific communities are often lost from public view in large Australian cities like Sydney and Melbourne. But two young women are using film to help Pacific islanders living in Australia tell their own stories.

The Pacific Stories project was initiated by producer and documentary filmmaker Amie Batalibasi and community worker Lia Pa’apa’a. 

The pair spent six months working with a diverse group of islanders living in Melbourne, teaching them the basics of filmmaking and encouraging them to use film to discuss their identity as Pacific migrants in Australia.
The two art workers see film as a great way to highlight the contribution that Pacific communities make to Australian life, which are often ignored.

“Pacific islanders are under-represented in all areas, particularly in the media,” says Batalibasi. “So part of what Pacific Stories was about was giving us a profile and making our stories visible as well. I don’t think anyone else would have done it—it had to be done by Pacific islanders themselves.”

Project organiser Pa’apa’a agrees: “This is part of why we did Pacific Stories—it wasn’t just to show all the palagis that we’re here and we’re visible and that we have our stories. For me, it was also about showing our Pacific islands elders that although we’re living here, we’re still identifying as islanders even if we do it differently to them.”

Teaching film skills
The Pacific Stories project began with 25 people, meeting every Saturday over six months to learn the basics of filmmaking, sound recording and story development. 

Over time, numbers dwindled to a dozen people, but this group bonded together and helped each other make eight short films, taking turns for direction, sound recording, camerawork and other tasks.

For the first-time filmmakers, the collective nature of the project was a real boost. Ranu James says: “For us, working together each Saturday was great. Sometimes you think you’re an island and you’re the only one who’s dealing with racism and where your children fit in and where you fit in.”

For co-ordinator Pa’apa’a, an Aussie of Samoan and native American heritage, the filmmakers reflect the diversity of islands communities in Australia.

“We acknowledged this diversity in the planning of the project and decided that we wanted to put a focus on the Melanesian communities,” she explains. 

“We recognised that the Pacific communities in Australia do meet and organise in their own mobs and a lot of the time Pacific festivals in Melbourne are very Polynesian-based with lots of Samoans, Tongans, Cook Islanders, Maori. We made the decision to put the word out and try to engage those Melanesian communities which don’t have the strong visibility that some of the other communities have.” 

In spite of the diverse backgrounds of the filmmakers, Pa’apa’a says there was a real bonding across our sea of islands.

“Once we formed the group, which was a very eclectic group—from Tonga, Fiji, Papua New Guinea and the Torres Strait as well—we found through our process that there were many similarities,” she says.
“This was on display at our opening night screening as well—people were recognising the similarities in the Pacific community in a way that hasn’t been done for a while.”

At the launch of the film, audience members got up to praise the filmmakers for their pride in Pacific heritage.
One woman cried: “A lot of our young people are very, very lost. Lots of our people are having problems with their identity here in Melbourne, so these stories give courage to our young.”

Batalibasi agrees that many islanders living in Australia face a constant debate over culture and identity: “Some people are strong in their sense of identity and knowing where home is—but certainly some people aren’t.”

Culture and coconuts
One of the most challenging films is by Pauline Vetuna, whose family migrated to Australia from Papua New Guinea in the 1970s. Pauline’s father, Pearson, is well known across Papua New Guinea as one of the voices of Radio Australia’s Tok Pisin service. At home, the family spoke English as they tried to adapt to life in suburban Melbourne.

Vetuna’s short film vividly describes the experience of being branded a coconut (brown on the outside but white on the inside). She talks to her mother about her parents’ decision to raise her without their indigenous language or culture.

Vetuna notes: “Having a conversation with my mum helped me to make peace with myself a bit. Now I think that being a coconut is brown on the outside and working it out on the inside!”

For proud father Pearson, Vetuna said: “I came away with new perspectives and an urge to reconnect physically with where I’m from, in other words—homesick.”

Many of the films highlight the family as a centre of culture and identity. Papua New Guinean Warrie Kome’s inspiring film “My Bubu” weaves together sound and film recordings of his grandmother, who educated and cared for him as he grew up near Port Moresby. 

In “From One to Another”, Venina Kaloumaira interviews her father and brother to explore the complexities and joys of being both Fijian and Australian. 

Ranu James’ film “This is my culture” draws on her children’s understanding of who they are and where they come from.

Producer Balalibasi’s father arrived in Australia from the Solomon Islands and she recognises that an older generation of migrants tried to adapt to the Australian way of life: “Maybe our parents have tried to fit in and assimilate as best as they can, and so it’s the next generation that are now coming up into adulthood and wanting to connect back with that Pacific culture.”

“We’re finding ways of doing that through the arts,” she adds. “That’s why artistic things now are strong—the weaving circle, arts, film.”

Art and identity
Across Melbourne, women of Pacific heritage are active in the arts scene, working in galleries, museums or community initiatives like the Pacific Women’s Weaving Circle (a group for women in Melbourne to learn and share traditional craft skills).

Pa’apa’a says that celebrating cultural identity is important for migrant communities living in Australia and that art provides a way for young people to express their links to families and communities in the islands.

“We are the product of our parents and our grandparents trying to give us a better life,” she says. “We’re at the point where there’s a lot of highly educated and highly skilled people who are able to work and live in both worlds—back in the islands but also to function to be very successful here in Australia. This generation’s coming up and there’s a lot of strong women using arts as a focus.”

Batalibasi has joined with other visual artists to help found the Australia Pacific Arts Network (APAN), which will support Pacific art workers as they establish a career in Australia. 

There’s a strong representation of painters, sculptors and dancers in the network, which was launched in Melbourne in July, but Batalibasi believes that film can play a vital role.

“There’s a lot of Pacific dance and visual arts in Australia, but for film, there’s nothing,” she notes. “So Pacific Stories was a very important project for us—once you make a film, it’s there forever as a family document.”
For now, the pair are recovering from months of intensive work and working out how to distribute the films far and wide. There’s already a strong demand for the Pacific Stories DVD, and opportunities to use the films in schools and universities to prompt discussion about identity in a multi-cultural society.

Batalibasi says: “I didn’t think we were going to make an educational resource. However, I’ve realised from what people have said that we have made this invaluable educational tool that teachers can use, because there’s so little film on Pacific islander issues made by Pacific islanders.” 

So what’s next? Batalibasi and Pa’apa’a are seeking funding for a media project to work with Pacific seasonal workers currently picking fruit in rural Victoria. 

They hope to gather and preserve the stories of the next generation of islanders working on the big island of Oceania.

• For details on the DVD and information on Pacific Stories, go to: