As lecturers in literature and fine arts at ‘Atenisi Institute from 2004-2006, we (Director Paul Janman and Producer Echo Zeanah-Janman) already had an intimate knowledge of the workings of this unique little Pacific island school. We had both been students of Futa Helu’s protégé ‘Okusitino Mahina at Auckland University and were aware of the importance of his thought and the reverence he inspired among his students. In Tonga, we also came to understand the respectful ambivalence about him that pervades among the Tongan population at large.
I would spend days wandering the grounds recording small details of ‘Atenisi life and its colourful characters. Sometimes it would be Futa lecturing or waxing on all manner of philosophical topics, boys killing and cooking suckling pigs, the operatic performances of Futa’s daughters or late night kava drinking sessions laced with heart-rending Tongan music and poetry. There were also dusty street scenes, a beauty contest and church meetings all over the island of Tongatapu. Then there was the decay, piles of rotting papers and texts, the worm eaten wood and books of the library and the eroding coral foundations of other buildings. Before we were done, there would be cyclones, earthquakes and the salvage of old photos, manuscripts and videotapes strewn about in back rooms awaiting the next flood.
Once this mass of material was accumulated, the problem became how to transform it into a compelling representation. The ideas of the Pacific’s seminal indigenous philosopher were like Tongan culture itself, both perplexing and stunningly pointed. Certain themes seemed to shine at the hub of Futa’s educational worldview; the doctrine of infinite complexity, the importance of rhythm in art, the tragic emotion and his beguiling definition of God. As I grappled with these thoughts as abstractions, they revealed themselves to me in the specific events of what became over several years, the narrative of ‘Atenisi Institute itself, simultaneously inspiring and melancholy as it was.
While there are moments of extreme lyricism, there are also moments of direct confrontation. The globalised world of economic and bureaucratic demands on education is clear, for example, as is the strange conflict between Tongan nationalism and the desire for real democracy. We state these contradictions openly but we also acknowledge and revere them as paradoxes. Sometimes the contradictory and the paradoxical merge, as in our commentaries on religion and the sacred in particular.
Many of the essential choices about the intended meanings in the film had been made when we began our collaboration with co-editor Malcolm Clarke. With him, we discovered the particular visual devices that the film really needed, especially during the philosophical musings of Futa himself. Malcolm experimented with the interaction of different kinds of contrasting textures – ways in which we could bring out the allusive clarity of Futa’s statements and the oblique poetry of opera and Tongan music. Incidental footage became key at the more numinous moments and this was made into beautiful montages.
Building on his work, we resolved the final cut rather quickly and with the addition of a driving and heartfelt score by the extremely talented and indefatigable Anna Rice, we had a continuity that would breathe life into the various elements in the timeline. After many years, it was a short road to the finish and the adventure of presenting this story to the wider world. We had projected the spirit of a man – both the calm order at the centre of his being and his constant ability to push boundaries and irritate the comfortable – a synthesis of cinematic craft and Tongan soul.