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Collaborative Ethnography: An Interview with Filmmaker Paul Wolffram

Collaborative Ethnography: An Interview with Filmmaker Paul Wolffram

Recently, I took the time to re-connect with DER filmmaker Paul Wolffram to learn more about the collaborative process behind his film, Stori TumbunaStori Tumbuna is about the Lak people in Papua New Guinea and their experience of myths. Rather than being told what myth means to the Lak, viewers–through their own experience of the film–come to experience the myth firsthand, parallel to that of the Lak. This is achieved through a unique collaboration between filmmaker and subjects that sets Stori Tumbuna apart from many other ethnographic documentaries. — Alice Apley, DER Executive Director

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t yet seen Stori Tumbuna and don’t want certain elements to be revealed, hold off on reading this interview!


A: How did the idea for Stori Tumbuna come about? Were you studying myths or did the topic come up in the context of another inquiry?

P: The first few months of my fieldwork in the Lak region were spent learning children’s songs and stories, oral histories and of course mythologies. These songs, stories and mythologies formed the basis of my understanding of the culture and society of the Lak region in Southern New Ireland. During that period, I was largely treated like an awkward overgrown child. My facility with the language of the Lak people and their social practices was at a very rudimentary level. I collected many mythologies about the origins of clan groups, the nature of animals in the rainforest, and the many different mythical and non-mythical creatures that resided in the uninhabited mountains.

I understood the stories I collected as just that, stories and mythologies. I was coming from a western academic background that encouraged me to see mythologies as providing an insight into the cultural metaphor and social structures of a people. This is not how the Lak people understand these oral literatures. Some of the stories are understood as having taken place in an historical past but many of these are understood as occurring in an historical present. That is, a time that is contemporary and re-occurring.

I took a video camera into the field because I understood that music and dance are intimately related in Melanesia and I wanted to approach these cultural practices as the people of the region think about them. Many of my Lak friends saw the potential of the video camera as a storytelling device. After 12 months living in the community I asked my friends what sort of story we should tell with the camera. The story of the Song came up in this way. We began to plan how we would tell the story. It took me some time to understand that my interlocutors wanted to tell the story as if it was happening now, in the present rather than recounting it as an historical mythology. Once I understood that they intended the story to be told as if it were contemporary I began to explore ways to weave my own narrative and presence in the film. It became obvious that documenting my own presence and work among the Lak could be effectively woven with the recounting of the Song mythology.

A: It’s clear from the film that the community members participate as actors and facilitate the shooting of the film. What’s less clear is the behind the scenes collaboration.  Can you talk about the nature of the collaboration between you and the community? What roles did they play and were there specific individuals involved in the conceptualization of the film, developing the story, staging the shot, editing, etc.  

P: Once we had decided on the Song narrative I began to talk to my collaborators in Siar and Rei communities about how we might realize the story. There are actually a few scenes in the film that appear to be us discussing the disappearance of a man from the community but they were actually production meetings in which I was discussing how we would tell the story. Patrick Torabusai and his brothers Christian, Lenny and Nerus helped me develop the story and suggested scenes. The hamlet in Siar, Kapokpok where I was hosted by Patrick and his wider family all participated in the grass cutting scene in which Bar returns from the forest to tell people that he’d discovered a basket in the forest.

Many of the other scenes in the film are real events that were woven into the story. There was a small group of young men led by Lenny and Christian Torabusai along with Toru and Bar who feature in scenes where we were discussing the Song. Most of the tracking to the song valley scenes are shot 15mins outside of the hamlet in the rainforest just beyond the gardens. The natural storytelling skills of these young men worked well. I would often just describe what I thought should happen in the scene and then let the camera run. I can’t recall ever doing a second take. For example, we were walking to the song valley and Bar said we should rest. I set up the camera and Bar improvised the telling of the story of the Song. Similarly with the scene on Lenny¹s porch where the difference in understanding and acceptance just ran without rehearsal or much discussion. The young men were already in place and I said I’d like to film a discussion about the reality of the Song. What arose was a genuine discussion about their relationship with mythology and my own ability or inability to understand their ethos.

A: How familiar were your collaborators with film as a storytelling medium and how did this influence the process of making the film?  

P: Most people in Lak have seen films at one time or another. My host father Paul Totili would tell me how, as a young man he worked on coastal shipping in the 60s and 70s out of Rabaul. He’d spend his paychecks on the Western films that were popular at the time and played at the Rabaul cinema. Most young people in the region have seen action and particularly kung fu films that are popular in the island region. The stories are easy to follow without comprehension of the dialogue. So most of my Lak collaborators had a reasonable understanding of how films work and manipulate reality. They could see the potential of the story we were telling to trick Western audiences and were excited at the prospect of playing with audience expectations.

The Lak see themselves as being isolated and forgotten. They often describe their region as the “last corner” of New Ireland. Many people in the Northern Region of New Ireland are afraid of people from the Lak region because of their strong relationship with traditional practices and sorcery. The idea that the film would show them as clever and sophisticated enough to pull the wool over the eyes of outsiders made the idea of the film particularly attractive.

A: For western audiences, the film works as a sort of horror film. How did your Lak collaborators understand the storytelling? What was their response to the finished film?

Stori Tumbuna InterviewP: I think thriller is perhaps a more accurate description of how the film works. At first my Lak collaborators were keen on showing the Song in more detail but I knew that we simply didn’t have the resources to pull off special effects or costume effects that would appear convincing to a Western audience. We did spend some time making long fingers and hair from bamboo and river weeds to give the Song an extraordinary appearance but I was careful to always obscure the Song with darkness and distance. Most effective thrillers rely on the audience’s imagination and this is what we sought to achieve.

I took the film back to the Lak region in early 2011 when it was at the rough cut stage. I screened it for all of the communities who participated (sometimes 60 people around the Laptop) and held discussion after the screenings. Some minor changes were made as a result but by and large the film seemed to conform with our shared understanding of what both they and I envisioned while we were making it.

A: This hardly seems like the kind of film you make as a new researcher to the community. How much time had you already spent in the community?  

P: When I set out to undertake ethnography in the Lak region I planned to go for 12 months but I ended up staying for about a year and a half. It was my first fieldwork experience and after 8 months I realised I would have to be there longer to achieve my ethnographic aims. I didn’t film anything for the first three months because I wanted to be careful about how I engaged with the people. I wanted to have some basis of cultural understanding and social skills so as not to offend people by thrusting a camera into their world. When I did eventually start to film cultural events I was encouraged to film and people would often tell me what to film. We started working together on Stori Tumbuna after I’d spent about 12 months in the area. By this stage people knew me well and I had a strong relationship of trust.

When I returned home to New Zealand my priority was to work on my thesis. I returned to the region again in 2004-5 for a further 8 months to complete the thesis. This return trip really opened my eyes to the importance of having continuing a relationship with my Lak hosts. People really opened up to me and treated me like a community member. I always told people that I would come back but no one took me seriously until I actually returned in 2004.  It took me another 5 years to complete the film. I had to learn how to edit and find the resources to make the film. As I mentioned I took the film back almost ten years later to show the community in 2010 before it was completed and screened for the first time.

A: Did the process of making the film further change your understanding of Lak experience of myths or their ideas about oral traditions more broadly? And if so, how?  

P: As I mentioned, what we call mythology and oral traditions in the Western World are understood in a different way by communities that sustain these practices. These mythologies are understood through the lens of relationships. Who tells you the stories and what they mean are interwoven. They describe the world as it was and as it continues to exist. There is a spirituality that it particularly difficult to describe to outsiders that underlies these stories. They are in part just that, stories, but they are also essential understandings that describe the world as it was and as it continues to be.

A: What else do you think it is important for audiences to know about the making of Stori Tumbuna?

P: My Lak friends and collaborator’s saw Stori Tumbuna as a way to describe to the world who they are and how they live. As I mentioned, at times they feel their geographic isolation acutely. 16 years after I first travelled to the region little has changed. There are still no roads through the area, no power or running water. Cell tower coverage has spread throughout Papua New Guinea but in 2015 the Lak region remains without coverage. Many people hoped that the film would encourage visitors and tourists. The Lak are incredibly warm hosts and welcome visitors but unfortunately the lack of roads into the region means that only the most intrepid venture that far south.

A: Do you continue to stay in touch with your Lak friends, or have you been back again since 2011?

P: I made a commitment to return at least one time every five years so that I can continue to participate in a small way with the communities that hosted me and with the families that supported me. My intention is to continue this relationship for the rest of my life.

A: Have the Lak expressed interest in collaborating on another project? Are you interested?

P: In January and February 2015 I returned to Siar community to undergo an initiation into a shamanic/sorcery cult know in the region as ‘Buai’. Buai is a form of creative sorcery that gives the initiate the power to communicate with spiritual entities in order to enhance creative abilities. I have been interested in the Buai sorcery for many years but I was always hesitant about undergoing the arduous initiation process. In 2015 I returned to the Lak region with the intention of completing the initiation. I sought permission from the my host community in Siar and was taken to the most senior practitioner in the Weitin valley just south of Siar. The initiation involved 5 days and nights mostly alone in the rainforest with no food and no water. The story of the initiation is told in a soon to be released documentary “What Lies That Way” (2016).


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