Avatar and a Vanuatu village are not as different as you may think. Peter Calder explains

Every film-maker aspires to have a film that goes on a big screen ... And this is a place and a story and a film worthy of that attention.

Yakel explores the lives of the inhabitants on the island of Tanna including chief Johnson Kowia (centre with beard).

It's hard to imagine that anyone who saw James Cameron's sci-fi epic Avatar would have been more excited than Rachael Wilson.

The Wanaka-based film-maker had just begun post-production on Yakel, the 3D documentary, shot in a small village on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu. And Avatar's Na'vi were uncannily reminiscent of the people Wilson had been filming in four shoots over the previous two years.


Utterly at home in an environment that Westerners would find hostile, these forest people had survived World War II, the depredations of missionaries, cyclones and violent eruptions from the volcano Yasur that looms above them, all the while remaining committed to the "kastom" (traditional) life of their forebears. They even have a revered tree at the centre of the village.

"It was so similar on so many levels," recalls Wilson. "I couldn't help getting excited that we'd taken a punt on doing this film and then this blockbuster comes out just before we are going to release and the theme was so closely aligned."

It's a safe bet that Wilson's 70-minute movie, which plays from next weekend as part of the Documentary Edge Festival 2012, won't be pulling $3.3 billion at the box office like that other film. But, as the first local 3D feature - and one of very few 3D documentaries yet made - it certainly deserves attention from people who swim outside the cinema-going mainstream. It's an intimate portrait of an (almost) untouched way of life told from the point of view of the people who are its subjects.

Its main character is Johnson Kowia, the tribe's chief who is, he thinks, 108 years old; as he moves gingerly around the village, he sometimes looks as old as time itself.

Wilson, who met the villagers while shooting the volcano for a BBC production, says she was invited to tell their story.

"Johnson was a very insightful chap," she says [The chief died in 2009]. "They have an oral storytelling tradition in their culture and he wondered if we could help him preserve their story, not just for their people but also for the Western world to let us know a little bit more about how they live and how they would like to keep on living."

Wilson, who has a long CV shooting and directing for various outfits including Natural History New Zealand, immediately saw it as a cinematic film.

"Every film-maker aspires to have a film that goes on a big screen," she explains. "You want to have a captive audience that has elected to go to see the film and are not disrupted by someone doing the dishes in the kitchen. And this is a place and a story and a film worthy of that attention."

The film intersperses scenes of village life with short "interview" sequences - although only villagers' voices are heard; there are no interviewers.

Johnson details his anxieties about the inevitable encroachment of modern life and his firm belief that "we have everything we need here".

"I want my people to keep our culture and not be tempted by a life that is not ours," he says.

The way the film progresses allows Wilson to avoid any charge of romanticising the villagers' lives. As viewers, we cannot escape a growing unease at watching a way of life that is certain to vanish, even before we hear one of the kids say "when I grow up, I'm going to fly a plane".

The villagers certainly seem to live apart from the 21st century. The men go naked apart from a woven penis sheath and the women wear grass skirts; the only accoutrements of Western civilisation seen in the film are a few cooking pots, one knife and one axe. "It's pretty basic," says Wilson mildly.

But the film evokes a life that looks like a Garden of Eden idyll. Crops grow luxuriantly in the rich volcanic soil and fat pigs abound.

Of the decision to shoot in 3D, Wilson says it was a format that suited the "otherworldly" locale.

"3D has the ability to transform a landscape and show all the subtle detail of it by giving the viewer more information visually. It was also a way we could film without being in their faces. We wanted to be able to stand back and observe the scene like it is a piece of theatre.

"You set the stage and you can stand back and put up a shot that gives so much information that you don't need all those close-ups."


What: Documentary Edge Festival 2012
When: From next 26 April to May 13.
Where: Event Cinemas Newmarket and the Auckland Art Gallery
On the web: yakel3dfilm.com and www.documentaryedge.org.nz