Movie preview: Tongan Ark

By Peter Calder

Auckland film-maker Paul Janman's doco on Tongan philosopher an absorbing, multi-layered portrait

Futa Helu the Tongan educator who features in Tongan Ark directed by Paul Janman. Photo / Supplied
Futa Helu the Tongan educator who features in Tongan Ark directed by Paul Janman. Photo / Supplied

It seemed fitting that the single screening of the documentary Tongan Ark at the International Film Festival took place at SkyCity. The capacity audience rode the lift up past the casino's gaming floor to watch a film about a man who spoke about the domination of the world by "a banal corporate and commercial culture".

Futa Helu, who died aged 75 in February 2010, was a Tongan philosopher - his particular inspiration was the pre-Socratic thinker Heraclitus - who founded a school in Nuku'alofa in 1963. He called it Atenisi, the Tongan word for Athens.

It came to the attention of Auckland film-maker Paul Janman when he was studying social anthropology at the University of Auckland and excited his interest sufficiently for him to devote 2004 and 2005 to teaching literature there.

Gradually he gained Helu's confidence, given access to Atenisi's archives and entrusted with telling its story. The result is a fascinating and multi-layered portrait of a man in whose aspirations are embodied many of the challenges of development in the Pacific.

Helu studied philosophy, literature and mathematics in Sydney in the 1950s and, when he returned to Tonga, established what was initially a night school for struggling students. Slowly it morphed into a high school and then a university, the only such institution in the Pacific that is aligned to neither a church nor a government.

With the archival footage he assembled and the fresh film he shot, Janman has created an absorbing portrait of a complicated figure who exemplifies the challenges of reconciling indigenous and European intellectual traditions.

"That's the crux of the film really," he says, "and it's very conscious that the contradictions are not resolved. It is an ongoing debate after 240 years of interaction between Polynesians and Europeans.

But what Futa represents is a fascinating bicultural experiment in which he fuses what he sees as a European educational tradition that was being marginalised in Tonga, with the indigenous traditions that are being marginalised by globalisation. The two traditions are actually quite compatible."

Many of Helu's pronouncements are thrillingly fresh: "Infinite complexity is the formal solution of all problems," he says at one point, and later: "The essence of democracy is that we interfere with other people."

Yet the film conspicuously does not seek to revere its subject. In many scenes, Atenisi - which has only recently and tentatively emerged from years of financial instability - seems perfectly to embody the under-resourced aspiration that is the perennial tragedy of the Pacific.

"What I admired about Futa was his pessimism of the intellect but his optimism of the will," says Janman. "He loved the tragic sense of life but at the same time it wasn't a passive fatalism. He was always trying to teach more and more."

When and where: Tongan Ark screens at the Mangere Arts Centre on Saturday at 7pm and the Auckland Art Gallery on Monday October 22 (Labour Day) at 2pm. Christchurch and Wellington screenings are on the website www.tonganark.net

- NZ Herald

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