About this time last year I returned from teaching and research assignments at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, USA. In the course I taught over there I included a component on native features films. The first film I showed was Tukana: Husait I Asua?
Soon after my return I took a trip to Bougainville to run a workshop for teachers of Buin Secondary, Bana Secondary, and Tonu Secondary. It was also an opportunity for me to travel through the no-go zone area right into the Panguna mine site. What remains now is only a memory like a bad scar, yet the film has kept alive much of the glory days of Bougainville in my visual memory.
The film was produced in early 1980s and released in 1983. Tukana’s release came seven years after Papua New Guinea gained its Independence in 1975. Three years before the 10th Anniversary celebration, the timely production of the film helped asked deep questions about the direction to which the country was heading to. The film also helped in reawakening national consciousness by asking the important question of who is to be blamed?
In Tukana, Albert Toro wants Papua New Guineans to view themselves in order to understand themselves and others in their societies. Using film, Toro encapsulates the many issues and challenges in addressing the issue of imagining a community made up of cultural, linguistic, and biological diversity. Papua New Guinea is reimagined through the eyes of the filmmaker. Tukana is a mirror of Papua New Guineans about themselves. At the time of filming Tukana, Bougainville was also basking in the limelight of major mineral boom, quality lifestyle, and the fast pace in which changes were occurring in the rural villages of Bougainvilleans. Bougainville like other Papua New Guinean societies had to deal with its share of social and cultural conflicts. Young people alienated from their village communities and people moved further and further away from their people, turning to modern lifestyles, western culture, and corrupted by the allure of modernity.
In 1984 Toro observed: “With the absence of Papua New Guinea films, a reliance on imported movies has been a great influence on the socio-cultural structure of the new generation. The cowboy heroes, kung-fu heroes, violence and detectives are all imported and in that Papua New Guineans, especially the new generation are identifying with the models and characters; celluloid heroes, that hail from different cultural backgrounds; thus, the population through this false imitation derived from these films. Nothing has been done to remedy this, except to increase the number of police and cry out about the increasing lawlessness. In fact, as many of the audience may be aware, teenage violence, rape, stealing and robbery, and other types of urban behaviour stem directly from the undermining of the old ways, where justice was swift and clean and a real deterrent for the sake of village cohesiveness.”
“Tukana is based on a story by Papua New Guinean Albert Toro and on a screenplay co-written by Albert Toro with producer and director Chris Owen. Owen is well known for his many documentaries about Papua New Guinea, including Man Without Pigs (1990), Bridewealth for a Goddess (2000), and Betelnut Bisnis (2004). Entirely in Tok Pisin (Papua New Guinea pidgin) with English subtitles, Tukana explores challenges faced by villagers on Bougainville and Buka islands in the early 1980s, as western-style schools and a growing economy increasingly interfered with long-established customs. “Traditionally education was the responsibility of our ancestors,” a voice-over explains early in the film. “Today western influences have changed all that. After years away at school, students become strangers.” Tukana traces how one group of school-made strangers, Tukana (played by Toro) and his friends adapt—and fail to adapt—to the many changes,” according to Houston Wood in his book on Native Features: Indigenous Films from Around the World (2008)
One of the dominating issues that run through Tukana is about the land, development of land, and the land tenure in Bougainville societies, even in the greater Papua New Guinea, for that matter Melanesia. In all of Bougainville, except for Buin, women own land, following the matrilineal customs. This is not specifically alluded to in the film. The very issue of land escalated into a major political and social crisis in the 1990s, which affected the Bougainvilleans.
“In May 1989, six years after Tukana was released, Bougainville Island was rolled with a civil war that lasted over a decade and caused as many as 20,000 deaths. Tukana provided a prescient examination of the conditions that lead to this conflict. Current agreements to create an autonomous Bougainville region headquartered in Buka have ended most of the chaos but not the continuing tensions between generations in these and other Pacific Islands. This topic is likely to appear in the Indigenous films of Oceania for many years to come” (Wood 2008:156).
If indeed the issue of land has a central role in the civil war conflict in Bougainville, the various efforts of the women of Bougainville to restore peace and normalcy on the Island meant the traditional values attached to land remain stronger than the introduced laws of land development and promises to uplift the lives of people in their participation of modern development initiatives. Land holds the strength of a people. So too are the connections Bougainvilleans have to one another in their various relationships as they move around, cultivate, and expand in their land. People are rooted to their land. With peace restored on the Island people returned to their land for support and sustenance, for rebuilding and relocation. Bougainvilleans reclaimed their rights to the land out of which most of the land now remains with the people.
Albert Toro is mindful of his role as the first Indigenous filmmaker in Papua New Guinea in the 1980s. Tukana’s insertion into the national psychology of Papua New Guinea meant Papua New Guineans have to pause for a moment to reflect on the path that they have taken since Independence.