Pacifica: Tales from the South Seas13-part series commencing Thursday, September 2, 7.30p.m. (7.00p.m. Adelaide)
Reviewed by Ignatius Kim
From musicals (South Pacific, Blue Hawaii) to TV shows (Gilligan's Island, Fantasy Island) the South Pacific has for long been an exotica in the Western eye.
Palm trees and coconuts immediately detonate thoughts of a languid paradise, a Bounty chocolate advertisement in slow motion without the voice-over. This image of the South Pacific, like the exotic Orient or the African wilderness, becomes a mystical Other that towers over the real thing.
While it is ostensibly respectful of the actual beauty of this area, this perception is, at best, an idealisation and at worst, an appropriation of identity. At once, Pacific islanders are frolicking natives and noble savages — invariably objects of a cultural voyeurism.
Although beautifully made, this tropical Orientalism mildly infects Pacifica, a documentary series that explores the traditions and cultures of nine Pacific island nations.
The first episode is divided into two parts. The first part takes us to the Saltwater People in the Solomons. Four centuries ago they escaped from head-hunters and mosquitoes in Malaita, one of the main islands, and built artificial islands in the Lau Lagoon.
Chief Nathan Wate is a descendent of a 40 generation-long line of chiefs on Sulufou, the central artificial island which accomodates 1000 people. He expresses much concern for lost traditions and ways of life.
"Not much remains because the coming of the missionaries and colonialists have changed our lifestyle", Chief Wate told Green Left Weekly.
"We lived under British rule for many years. During that time the missionaries came and worked hand in hand with the colonial administrators to tell us what they thought was best. We had no choice but to follow their way of life; we had no say in the running of our communities or culture."
His concern is very much tied to the environmental crisis as the Saltwater People are dependent on subsistence fishing.
"Our livelihood is in the seas. Through the years, our ancestors spoke of plentiful fish and regular currents. They never spoke extraordinarily about cyclones or changing currents because they adapted to the rhythm.
"But now, cyclones are frequent and more destructive than before. There are more frequent changes of currents and tides as well as among fish and seaweeds.
"We believe that the testing of nuclear weapons in the Pacific has something to do with it. The environment is really spoilt."
The Saltwater People also have to contend with powerful fishing companies from the First World.
"We have a major problem with Japanese driftnet fishing which is indiscriminate. It is emptying the Pacific. Already, we can see many fish floating dead in the water, and this costs us our livelihood", said Chief Wate.
The concerns extend beyond Lau Lagoon.
"There is still much subsistence farming in the rural areas of the Solomons. This is threatened by the logging companies which come with big trucks and bulldozers, cutting across rivers, forests, you name it. They cut down all the timber and export it while we receive the bad end of it."
Unfortunately, these concerns are only given marginal attention in the first episode of Pacifica, for while some of it does speak through the words of Chief Wate, the authoritative voice remains that of an unknown narrator who is more interested in the fascinating rituals and the like. We do not hear any of the other Saltwater People speak.
My mind turned back to nature programs and 1940s editions of National Geographic.
The second part, "The Arrival", is an arty look at the painter Paul Gauguin's visit to Tahiti. Using entries from his diary, it reenacts his subsequent affair with Tehura, a local woman who became a powerful part of Gauguin's Tahitian muse. Again, Tehura becomes the subject of the voyeur Gauguin as she is accorded a few words about the stars while his narration carries us through the dramatisation.
Nevertheless, Pacifica is a 13-part series and it will be interesting to view it in totality, if only for the fact that it may itself provide an object for voyeuristic dissection.