DER Documentary

Malagan Labadama: A Tribute to Buk-Buk


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by Chris Owen
color, 58 min, 1982




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The Melanesian island of New Ireland is a province of Papua New Guinea and lies in the Bismarck Archipelago four hundred miles northeast of New Guinea. For the people of the Mandak region of New Ireland the most dramatic and complex ceremonial events in their community are those surrounding death. A malagan is a carved, painted representation, given ceremonially in honor of a deceased person as a final mortuary offering; the term may also refer to the spirit represented by the carving, or to the festivities accompanying its presentation.

This is the story of the three Kaparau brothers from Pantagin village, Eliakim, Raymond and Anton, who organize a malagan labadama for their deceased kinsman Buk-Buk. Buk-Buk had been the paramount lulai (chief) of the Mandak region, had served as a government employee under the German colonial administration, and witnessed the Japanese and Australian occupations. Elaborate preparations that last for months, tatanua dancers performances and the slaughtering of large numbers of pigs are all a part of the malagan and are all portrayed in this superbly photographed film.

The filming coincided with the fieldwork of Elizabeth Brouwer, an Australian anthropologist who served as a consultant for the film. Dr. Brouwer's dissertation topic was this particular malagan. There is contradictory information about these rituals. According to Dr. Roy Wegner of the University of Virginia, this memorial was not a re-enactment of a defunct tradition but a typical lengthy ritual that continues to thrive in New Ireland. Stephen Madana, et al, of New Ireland feels that this tradition is fading as there are not many people left who can carve a malagan and that people are too busy to mount a memorial or incur the expenses. A hopeful benefit of this film will be to convince young Mandaks to be more involved with village life and generate interest in future rituals.

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