DER Documentary

The Navigators: Pathfinders of the Pacific

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by Sam Low and Boyd Estus
color, 59 min, 1983


New 2013 Digitally Restored and Remastered Edition



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Over 1,000 years ago, the islands of Polynesia were explored and settled by navigators who used only the waves, the stars, and the flights of birds for guidance. In hand-built, double-hulled canoes sixty feet long, the ancestors of today's Polynesians sailed across a vast ocean area, larger than Europe and North America combined.

To explore this ancient navigational heritage, anthropologist/filmmaker Sanford Low visited the tiny coral atoll of Satawal in Micronesia's remote Caroline Islands. There he spoke with Mau Piailug, the last navigator to be ceremonially initiated on Satawal, and one of the few men who still practice the once-essential art of navigation in the Pacific. In a dramatic demonstration, Mau Piailug sails a replica of an original Polynesian canoe from Hawaii to Tahiti: 2500 miles across the ocean without benefit of sextant, compass, or any other Western navigational instrument.

The Navigators reveals the subtleties of this sea science, transmitted in part through a ceremony known as "unfolding the mat," in which 32 lumps of coral are arranged in a circle to represent the points of the "star compass." To master the lore of navigation was to attain great status in traditional Micronesian society. Today, few men remain with Mau's skills, knowledge, or aspirations.

As this film probes the history of navigation through archaeology and accounts of explorers such as Captain Cook, it does not lose sight of the ways traditional Pacific societies sustained the system of navigation and navigators. On Satawal, we see how that system is being transformed from vital social action to proud and sometimes wistful memory. The Navigators was funded by Pacific Resources, Inc., the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, and the Hawaii Committee for the Humanities.

"This is an excellent film about traditional canoe navigation in the Pacific that I highly recommend to both general audiences and students of anthropology, geography, and maritime history... Over a half century ago Robert Flaherty brought the remarkable Nanook to world attention. In this film Sanford Low brings us the equally engaging Mau Piailug."American Anthropologist, the journal of the American Anthropological Association
"...the first major film to treat the subject of Oceanic voyaging and navigation... The Navigators, combining first-rate cinematography with an accurate portrayal of the most recent findings in Polynesian archeology and anthropology, brings the saga of their Polynesian voyagers alive." — Dr. Patrick Kirch, Bernice P. Bishop Museum, Honolulu
"A beautifully photographed, carefully organized program..."Boston Herald
"On behalf of the people of the Federated States of Micronesia I would like to extend our heartfelt thanks to you and your crew for your recreation of this part of our culture which is dying out in this day and age of modern technology. I only hope that our young people will look upon this as a chance to grow into this modern age without forgetting our Micronesian traditions: those traditions which will keep our failing culture alive." — Tosiwo Nakayama, President, federated States of Micronesia

Related Resources
Study Guide (PDF)
Filmmaker's Website

Film Festivals, Screenings, Awards
Cine Golden Eagle, 1983
Blue Ribbon, American Film Festival, 1983
Hawaii Book and Music Festival, 2013
Film/Video International at Castle Hill, 1984
Nantes Festival International de film du Mer, 1985
Massachusetts Institute of Technology film series, 1988
Margaret Mead Film Festival, 1983
Honolulu Film Festival, 1983



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