Forty years after establishing his controversial and iconoclastic ‘Atenisi (Athens) University in the remote Pacific island Kingdom of Tonga, Futa Helu was still making grand prophecies based on the teachings of the ancient Greek philosopher Herakleitos of Ephesos. The image below is from the ‘Atenisi graduation ceremony of 2006.
While he was the intellectual architect of the Tongan pro-democracy movement, Helu can also be credited with the development of a modern form of European/Tongan critical education in Tonga as well as the simultaneous cultivation of Italian opera and indigenous Tongan performing arts. Now Futa and his extraordinary school are the subject of our feature documentary Tongan Ark, which premiered at the New Zealand International Film Festival on August 4th, 2012.
Our drama begins with Futa Helu’s retirement from ‘Atenisi leadership in 2006. His daughter Sisi’uno (below) somewhat reluctantly takes over the reins and with the help of an eccentric Dutch astronomer, a Jewish New York sociologist and an array of free-thinking ‘Atenisi alumni, they do battle with the forces of bureaucracy, commercialism and cultural change that threaten Futa Helu’s dream.
As ‘Atenisi Institute aspires and endures, despite its few resources, a national political crisis unfurls in Tonga in late 2006. As the government fails to take decisive action towards democratic reform, a frustration fuelled riot breaks out on the streets of Nuku’alofa. As a result, 60% of the capital’s central business district is destroyed by fire. The new King George V eventually accedes to democratic demand before staging a lavish coronation with gilted thrones and historical European costumes. The Tongan people have a fierce pride in an historic monarchy that helped to avert colonisation by Europe but these days, the monarchy seems unable to protect them from relentless global social and economic forces.
One of the more startling characters in the film is the figure of Kik Velt. In flight from the entrepreneurism and cultural decline of Europe in the 8Os, this Dutch astronomer has spent the last 20 years barefoot as a teacher of mathematics and physics at ‘Atenisi Institute in Tonga. The paradox is that as a European, he has found a kind of liberation in the context of the extremely conservative but somehow non-judgemental Tongan society.
Not all ‘Atenisi students are radicals but many are outsiders. Among the earnest scholars and legitimate graduates, there are drop outs and misfits who have found a venue at ‘Atenisi Institute to express their unique brands of intelligence. Exposed to Aristotle and Verdi as well as the time-honoured traditions of Tongan poetry and dance, many of these students have gone on to become university teachers, musicians and activists around the world. Here ‘Ofa Vatikani wears a costume that his uncle brought back from a pro-democracy conference in Dubai. He is extremely serious about his intellectual development but he also enjoyed wearing this garb to class for a couple of weeks.
Every significant institution in Tonga has a back room full of defunct machines and technical junk left over from the last round of ‘aid’ and ‘innovation’ that the First World has foisted upon it. ‘Atenisi is no exception and carries it’s own collection of historical Macs and PCs full of cockroach eggs like a sign from some apocalyptic future. Computers are as much a part of the constructive work of ‘Atenisi Institute as anywhere else but ultimately, as Futa Helu has said: “those who have studied computers have only empty knowledge, because technology will continue to change… that is why our work is to search for permanence, because permanence is truth!”
Public Films would like to thank the Screen Innovation Production Fund for their generous support in enabling this production.
Since missionary contact began in the early nineteenth century, Tongans have thoroughly embraced the gospels like few other nations on Earth. Christianity has been historically empowering of the common people in Tonga and has played its part in the modern struggle for their rights. Nonetheless, as Futa Helu once said… “isn’t it possible to have other favourite philosophers than Jesus Christ, particularly when going to church is so expensive that many children don’t have money to pay school fees. The sermons offered are also frequently unenlightening”. ‘Atenisi University has always extended educational possibilities for Tongans but it has also paid the price of rumour and unpopularity among the zealots. Tongan Ark seeks to show that ‘Atenisi students are not un-Christian and they are absolutely NOT in league with the devil.
In the context of a world that seems ever more determined to be driven by economic exigency, conformist ideology and the elaborate and manufactured pressures of compressed time and space, Futa Helu offered an alternative for his students at “the poorest school in the Pacific”. His worldview on education is encapsualted by his beguiling definition of God near the end of the film.
Tongan Ark is in the public eye after more than seven years of work including bi-annual shoots in Tonga, the collection of over 60 hours of footage as well as tens of hours of VHS material burnt by tropical heat and abandoned to the insects in back rooms. We hope you’ll come and support this unique project and the work of the extraordinary visionary ‘Ilaisa Futa Helu and his school.
The film’s Director Paul Janman kicks back below with Loni and Tangi on a Sunday afternoon of shooting and pig basting on ‘Atenisi Campus. ‘Atenisi University is a place of great rigour and lofty aspiration but it is also a place where time and space is uncompressed. Philosophising is able to happen at it’s own unique pace.
To see more projects by PUBLIC FILMS, jump to our main website.