Rainforest, pigs and PhDs

April 10, 1991

Man Without Pigs
A film by Chris Owen
AFI Cinema, Paddington (Sydney)
Reviewed by David Brazil

After 12 years away university, John Waiko, a member of the Binandere clan, returns to Tabara, a tiny village in the dense tropical rainforest on the north-eastern coast of Papua New Guinea where he was born.

Having become the first Papua New Guinean to be awarded a PhD from the ANU in Canberra, John wishes to celebrate by holding a traditional feast in his home village. The effect of his return on the highly structured community and the long-established traditions of family dominance and personal rivalry are the subject of this fascinating documentary.

Chris Owen and Andrew Pike, the film crew who, along with Hank Nelson, John's supervisor from the ANU, accompanied him on his return, brilliantly capture the complex set of personal, social and political tensions which arise. The film's strength lies in the systematic way it goes about investigating these tensions, providing insights into the structures and rituals of village life, demystifying behaviours which seem inexplicable to a Western audience.

John's status is initially unclear. The preparation for the feast involves the cooperation of the whole village. John's lack of pigs means that he is unable to repay family and friends for their help in preparing the stage, rehearsing dances and songs and gathering food. John's university education cannot help him to interpret the intricacies of village etiquette and custom. His problems seem to be insoluble.

In the end, the threat from the outside world unites the villagers behind John. They come to realise that his knowledge and education will help them in the fight to preserve their livelihood and very survival from the developer's axe. "Our identity is in the forest — we are losing our way of life", he argues.

At his triumphant feast, John and the other leaders of the clan display a sophisticated understanding of the effect of the government's National Forestry Action Plan to log over 3500 sq km of virgin forest each year. As one elder of the village argues, "the rainforest is our resource for generations". If the forest is destroyed, then this sophisticated community, living in a close, sustainable harmony with a fragile environment, will not survive.

Man Without Pigs is a very important film. It is also very entertaining. Its direct, cinéma-vérité style creates an engaging and often humorous encounter in which the film crew themselves are players. The attitudes of the Binandere people to the Kiaps (Australian colonial administrators, who normally couldn't speak the local language) is evoked in a hilarious sequence depicting the re-enactment of a traditional farce.

The film is punctuated by background information presented by Hank Nelson, which tends to break the tension of the developing narrative but does serve to further understanding of the events depicted. Man Without Pigs is screening in Sydney in an unusual double bill with Gap-Toothed Women, a hilarious independent documentary from the USA by Les Blanks, one of America's foremost independent film makers.

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