Our history ‘written in lighting’


I REMEMBER growing up in the mid-1990s, watching the popular children’s programme Sesame Street and being able to enthusiastically count numbers and recite the alphabet along with the characters from the show. I found that entertaining as well as educational.
I’ll now reflect on the staggering continuity of the film-making industry in Papua New Guinea.
Papua New Guinean films may be defined as those films made in PNG or perhaps films made for the Papua New Guinean audience or films made by Papua New Guineans. A reflection upon America’s film industry from the book America History/America Film points out that “all films are ultimately about something that interests and/or bothers the culture . . . they are tools for teaching and resources for historical scholarship”.
A powerful medium of cultural preservation in a country of diverse cultural mythologies, film-making may become the only solution to an already threatened cultural autonomy in PNG. Feature films such as Marabe, Tukana and Wokabaut Bilong Tonten (all in tok pisin) are stories of different protagonists amid their own conflicts, however, from these films, one may learn of the lifestyle, history (in the pre-independence era), attitude and reaction to the changing times. On the other hand, documentary films such as First Contact, Kama Wosi and Gogodala as well as several others, depict culture in the art of carving, dancing, music and customary rites.
These are captured on film with some of these cultural forms long extinct with others on the verge of cultural extinction.
While the National Film Institute (NFI) maintains its archive of heritage collection of films, an uncounted number of explicit cultural rites and knowledge may be unknown in this vast nation whose cultural heritage remains its strongest force yet. These heritage are also fast eroding due to western and religious influence.
Background on NFI
“The beginning of the NFI extends back to 1979, states Michelle Baru, the acting director of the NFI in Goroka.
“With the creation of a media extension unit within the then newly created Raun Raun Theatre in Goroka, Eastern Highlands, the media unit was tasked to produce video tape recordings of live stage performances by the theatre troupe for screening in remote rural communities as part of a theatre outreach programme.
“Later on, the unit expanded its role and separated from the Raun Raun Theatre to become the Skul Bilong Wokim Piksa (School of Filmmaking) in its own right.
“There followed an intense period of film training and production supported by the French government which culminated in the widely acclaimed drama feature production Tinpis Run.”
Following the passing of the National Cultural Commission Act in 1994 the Skul Bilong Wokim Piksa was renamed the National Film Institute.”
Functions of the NFI
Baru further explains that NFI’s primary mission is to produce films and videos documenting Papua New Guinea’s rich and diverse cultural heritage in the context of urgent anthropology, whilst fostering the growth of a Melanesian film culture and industry. As the country experiences rapid social change, NFI has created and maintained a significant national audio visual archive containing a unique collection of film and video artefices reflecting PNG’s modern history.
Developing the local
film industry
It is now considered to be a social priority to develop the local film industry in PNG despite the declining public demand and financial pressures that befall this area.
With a team of highly-skilled film-makers including executive and line producers, videographer, video editor, sound editor, film archivist and office manager, NFI has produced award winning films such as Tukana, Man without pigs, Tinpis Run, Yonki dam, Napalunga and Betelnut bisnis. A few freelance production units now stand to pursue film-making such as Yumi Piksa, Niugini Piksa, Community Eye Films (CEF started by filmmaker Ruth Ketau) and several other freelancers, all with the aim of disseminating information using film.
Although there are problems and constraints in the film industry in PNG, there is still reason to be optimistic about the power of film to capture moments and stories in the complex encounter between cultures.
There is an obligation to preserve and promote our cultural heritage and in doing so, create “history written in lighting” as Woodrow Wilson, 28th President of the United States, once remarked.

  • Shirley Komogi is a freelance writer.

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