Directed and produced by Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson
Reviewed by Barry Healy
Black Harvest is the latest in a series of documentaries by these two Sydney-based film makers tracing the development of the New Guinea highlands through the personal stories of the white explorers who first entered the area and one of their offspring, Joe Leahy. They have caught dramatic moments of transition as modern economics has shaken the lives of the region's people.
The issues raised in these films go well beyond the cultural questions of the interaction of differing world views. They point to some of the most disturbing aspects of Western domination of the Third World and implicitly confront the viewer with the question of what is to be done about it.
The first of the series, First Contact, drew on remarkable archival footage shot by the 1930s Leahy brothers' gold mining expeditions as they introduced the highlanders to their trade goods, firearms and sexual appetites. The children born of these liaisons were not acknowledged by their white fathers. Joe Leahy was one of them.
Joe Leahy's Neighbours (1988) traced the rise of Joe as a wealthy coffee plantation owner using the land of the Ganiga tribe. Not having access to land because of his mixed parentage, and never accepted by his father, Joe used business acumen acquired on his uncle's farm and his knowledge of tribal customs to win power and prestige but never full acceptance.
The most powerful sequence of the film is Joe's attendance at the funeral of the Ganiga's premier Big Man. While the poverty-stricken Ganiga offer traditional funeral gifts of no greater value than
a few dollars, Joe arrives and offers $100. This immediately disrupts all the economic and political balances of the tribe and, within minutes, Joe is recognised as the next Big Man and the funeral gifts start going to him.
Black Harvest begins with this same sequence — Joe Leahy at the apex of his power and wealth. But the decline of world coffee prices soon brings his downfall and the possible destruction of the Ganiga's traditional lifestyle.
The crisis exists because Joe persuaded the Ganiga to go into a joint venture with him in expanding his coffee plantation. When coffee prices collapse, the Ganiga quickly find what the realities of modern economics mean for them — slaving in the plantation for a pittance. Very soon they lose interest and enter into an intertribal war.
Joe's wife and family leave him for a safer life in Moresby. He sits glowering and chewing on his anger in his luxurious house while the suffering and death toll rise in the valley. Joe's main tribal political ally, Popina Mai, a great orator and warrior, is torn between the prospect of "development" and the growing anger of the tribe.
The unrelenting honesty of these personal issues gives the film the narrative power of a Greek tragedy. It would be easy just to decry Joe Leahy as a smooth-talking operator using the Ganiga, but his emotional breakdowns at key moments make it clear that he is a victim of his own history.
Of course, he stands to escape the poverty of New Guinea as a migrant to Australia, while the Ganiga are in real danger of losing all their land. Popina Mai attempts an honourable suicide as the pressures drive the whole plantation to ruin and his dreams evaporate.
Marx wrote of the process of primitive accumulation
of capital in the early days of the modern age that the history of the expropriation of the feudal peasants "is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire". Black Harvest shows that at the twilight of the capitalist system its intrusion into traditional economies is still accompanied by violence but also now by a sense of personal loss and hopelessness.
Popina Mai says at one point that he would like to sell his big black pig and go to where these economic decisions are made and tell the people there what is happening. This film carries the message for him: it is up to its viewers to take the appropriate action.