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Friday, 26 April 2019 05:49 pm

Bush giant leads anthropologist down mysterious sidetrack

FILMMAKER Dr Paul Wolffram thought it would be fascinating enough just living and filming in a remote village in Papua New Guinea.

But he hadn’t counted on the giant.

Paul was studying music and dance in PNG villages for his PhD in ethnomusicology, when he was sidetracked by a mysterious incident.

A man from the village where Paul was living in the Lak community in Southern New Ireland went missing in the jungle, and the villagers’ explanation was he was taken by a giant man in the bush, known in mythology as “Song”.

Paul became fascinated with accounts of the creature, which the villagers claimed occasionally kills people.

Its feet were said to be on backwards and people described enormous fingers that could tear people apart.

“For somebody studying culture, I wanted to know why they perceive this as a plausible explanation,” he says.

One of three films he is making of his year and a half stay in 2001-2002 – Stori Tumbuna: Ancestors’ Tales, which screened in the current New Zealand International Film Festival – shows footage of the giant.

The oldest man in the village instructed the people to leave a female pig in a certain remote spot in the jungle every month to appease the creature, a big sacrifice to a community that places high value on a sow’s reproductive potential.

JUNGLE TREK: Paul, Tobek, Nerus, Toround, Fabian in the rainforest behind Wetin valley.

The villagers took Paul to a cave in the jungle where they believed it lived and he set up his camera, leaving it pointing at the cave overnight.

“At 35 minutes, a human figure comes out of the cave. This guy is bigger than any Papuan I’ve seen and on the film you can clearly see he’s huge and has really elongated fingers.”

“So all this time I’ve been all rational, and all of a sudden here’s proof that the world is completely not as I understood it, and that in fact they actually have a much clearer grasp of what’s going on than I do.”

Although he included the footage in the film, he says he did not wish to have people capture the creature and study it.

“And they’re (the villagers) all clearly against that. They understand it in a different way than we do and that is that it’s acceptable that it’s there, that it has a right to be there, whereas we would tag it, bag it, and dissect it.”

He emphasises that the film trilogy was a collaboration between him and the Lak people.

“It’s an opportunity for them to tell their story and in their way, because all too often the power imbalance is out there. You know, white guy comes in, narrates their story for them and slams it on.”

REMOTE SITE: View from the mountain behind Kampokpok hamlet, Siar.

He also went back for a visit last year and had the villagers view the films to make sure they approved.

He says Stori Tumbuna: Ancestors’ Tales, the second in the trilogy, subverts the ethnographical genre by exploring the Song myth/reality and showing how he, as a “rational” outsider, cannot explain the mysterious events that are unfolding around him.

He found the Lak people to be sophisticated in their own way.

“Europeans tend to think of themselves as being at the centre of the universe and that these people living in the middle of the jungle are peripheral to the rest of humanity.”

“But in fact they are at the centre of their own world and are managing their challenges and environment in a way that works for them.”

He says in many ways they are much more socially sophisticated than we are because we get so distracted by things like technology, whereas they are engaged with one to one human interaction all the time.

Understanding one another

Among the various challenges Paul faced was the difficulty for the villagers to really understand what he was doing there.

“It’s hard for some of them to understand, like ,what a university is, and how can you come halfway across the world to study someone’s music and dance, and who’s going to take care of your garden while you’re in Papua New Guinea, and who’s looking after your pigs.”

But once they saw he was sincerely interested in their music and dance, the nervousness faded and he was able to build a good relationship with them, complete with his own clan name.

Likewise, he needed time to be able to understand them: “You have to stay in the location for a long time to really understand the people, the place, the culture, there’s no shortcut to it.”

It is also challenging adjusting to a different environment with none of the luxuries taken for granted in Western society, such as electricity, running water, or adequate healthcare.  Paul got malaria six times during his stay.

Living without luxury

Paul is careful not to romanticise the Papuans, as there are many issues the country faces, such as how dangerous it is, the malaria, and the lack of social services or infrastructure.

The main two villages Paul lived in were called Rei and Crsair in Southern New Ireland, a remote island above the mainland, where the Lak people live.

It is a country about the same geographical size as New Zealand, but there are 800 languages and so they have a pidgin language that everyone can speak, as well as numerous local dialects.

Music and dance play an important role in their culture of mortuary rites, which involve constant rituals for the dead in a process they call “finishing”.

“It’s really neat to be able to understand another culture’s music and aesthetics and be able to appreciate it.”

Paul has been working with the Lak community on and off for 10 years. Stori Tumbuna is set mainly in 2002, but he has returned for long periods on three other occasions.

He has directed a number of other documentaries, such as Sign of the Times, a feature documentary on the New Zealand deaf community, and several other films about Pacific Island communities.

Paul teaches production courses for the film school at Victoria University.

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  1. Great article! It’s a really entertaining, eye-opening film. If you get the chance to see it, do so!

    P.S. It should be pidgin language, not pigeon.

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