Filmmaker Interviews

Intersecting Lives: An Interview with Olivier Pollet and Kristian Lasslett

Filmmakers Olivier Pollet and Alexandre Berman with Bruno Idioai and community. Photo: Nathan Matbob

Filmmakers Olivier Pollet and Alexandre Berman with Bruno Idioai and community. Photo: Nathan Matbob

The producers of Ophir have launched a companion website, The Colonial Syndrome (TCS) aimed at providing additional educational resources to accompany their full-length film. The site features over 30 short films and archival documents tracing the history of colonialism and its lasting mechanisms in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea.

We interviewed project principals, including Olivier Pollet (OP) and Professor Kristian Lasslett (KL) about the making of the platform.

The Making of The Colonial Syndrome: A Platform for Educators

DER: What were your motivations for creating The Colonial Syndrome?

Olivier Pollet: The central idea behind the creation of The Colonial Syndrome was born of a desire to offer a freely accessible multimedia learning tool that could help audiences – mainly educators with their students – go beyond what can be told in a classic 90-minute film format. It is an attempt to circumvent the inherent limitations of a single narrative and to offer students learning tools that can help them analyze a historical situation–specifically to understand the lasting legacy of colonialism and its mechanisms, through the experiences of the people of Bougainville.

DER: What were the key partnerships that informed the design of the platform?

OP: TCS was developed in partnership with community members who share their intimate stories of colonialism and memories of the biggest conflict in the Pacific region since WWII. The platform was purposefully designed for educators interested in a curriculum that critically investigates colonialism and its long-term impacts, and for courses looking at social movements fighting for eco-justice in the face of state-corporate violence.

Educators are free to use its contents the way they see fit for their students. The content has been organized along a timeline; each of seven chapters deals with a unique theme, such as the impact of colonization on indigenous cultures, material systems and the sense of personhood, or the close relationship between destructive forms of resource extraction and the colonial project.

DER: Could you tell us more about how the platform is organized for use in a classroom setting?

OP: The platform provides teachers with short (5-10 minute) cinematic vignettes produced by Bougainvillean artists, historians, and thinkers and is structured into a linear narrative that tells the story of Bougainville from colonization to conflict and finally to renewal. Accompanying these short films are primary sources [photos, letters, documents] drawn from historical and corporate archives which chart the perspective and attitudes of the colonial and corporate powers both during the colonial period and after, when the region plunged into a decade–long war. These resources are curated with introductions and annotations to ensure each text is situated historically and socially, and with no assumption of prior area knowledge.

It encourages students to listen to the oral experiences shared by community members, while comparing those lived experiences with the official documentation viewed through original colonial records. In that sense it opens up the opportunity for students to combine their own independent reading and in-class learning with a rich repository of primary materials which they can creatively interpret to produce essays, podcasts, blogs, presentations, etc.

DER: Could you discuss how different partnerships evolved and informed the process of creating Ophir and TCS?

Kristian Laslett: TCS was a project driven by the academic members of the team, namely Dr. Ruth Saovanna and me. We watched the raw footage in its entirety, began coding and identifying themes emerging from the footage, and collecting primary sources that fitted around these themes. While we worked through this process, the creative side of the team looked at ways of putting together the cuts. Each cut told a mini-story in its own right and conveyed something about the speaker as a person and storyteller.

Dr. Ruth Saovanna

Dr. Ruth Saovanna

I have been collaborating academically with Ruth for about 10 or so years. Being an investigative criminologist who had spent some of the 2000s documenting in intimate detail the crimes committed by the mining company Rio Tinto and their state partners in Port Moresby and Canberra, it was only natural our paths would eventually cross.

During my past work, I obtained access to a wide range of internal resources from the company, and interviewed a lot of the senior state-corporator actors involved in administering the war effort. In parallel, I had worked with Olivier [Pollett} on other projects in PNG looking at activities of predatory corporations involved in resource extraction and land grabbing.

So when we began making Ophir and TCS it was no surprise that we would all get together again, and Dr. Ruth Saovanna was someone who was at the forefront of helping make sense of the process. She was not like the usual kind of academic voice you might hear in Canberra; she brought a local perspective as a landowner and as someone who was doing significant research on the critical role women played in bringing an end to the war and building the peace movement.

Also Ruth is a linguist. She is someone who loves culture, and understands deeply how the heavy lead feet of colonialism and industrial capitalism were crushing so much of what is dear to her and the culture she is a custodian of. As someone who has traveled the world in an academic role, Ruth also has a rare ability to translate local experiences into a language and framework that people from outside Bougainville can appreciate.

DER: How did the filmmaking approach encourage community members to share such intimate experiences and how did it inform the finished product?

OP: During the research process we started this long-lasting collaboration with Kris [Lasslett], being immersed in all the extraordinary collection of records that he held with his past work on Bougainville, which very much defined our approach during the filming.

As we started working on Ophir with my dear filmmaker friend Alexandre Berman, and with the help of other amazing friends in Bougainville, namely Nathan Matbob and Theonila Roka Matbob, the scale of the research was such that we had the intuition that it would be very difficult to condense the research into one narrative, as so much would need to be left out. We are not talking here about outtakes that hold less value; we are talking about extremely precious stories which deserved to be heard and learnt from, as so many members of the local communities wanted to share their experience. As a matter of fact some of my favorite material–records and testimonies–can actually be found on the TCS platform, which offers a depth of understanding that cannot be obtained in a single narrative.

We decided to approach the filmmaking in a totally open-ended way, leaving absolute freedom to the participants to express themselves in the way they wanted, sharing the stories they wanted in the place and language they wanted to tell them. They were the true drivers of the project. We were asking very few questions as it was clearly about listening and taking in what was being shared, not leading what a person was sharing. We saw our roles as simple artistic listeners and translators of a reality being shared and the camera as a simple tool to capture it. It would then be our responsibility to organize it later and try to do justice to them.

Alexandre Berman films near the Panguna mine. Photo: Nathan Matbob

Alexandre Berman films near the Panguna mine. Photo: Nathan Matbob

DER: How did you decide which footage to include in your film and what to add into the series?

OP: As we started filming Ophir with this approach, the idea came about of extending the collaboration with Kris, who was already working with Ruth on works based on his archives and local testimonies. Our projects shared a very similar purpose, and as Kris said, it was absolutely natural to merge all our forces, and it became even richer.

Going with this open-ended approach, at no point did we know beforehand if one thing would feature in the film while others would be used for the platform. We left those decisions later to Kris and Ruth, as they selected what they saw could really be beneficial for educational purposes. Ophir has different qualities that play to its own strong point as a feature film. It provides more of an emotional understanding of colonialism and its situation, doing what a feature does best, while the platform provides a different space of reflection, being able to contextualize experiences even more. And a lot of material is shared between the two projects.

Some characters seen in Ophir have their own short film – or even films – on the platform which helps to build out their stories. I am thinking in particular of one short film entitled “Caught in the Middle,” a story shared by Paramount Chief Peter Garuai, which unfortunately was not featured in Ophir. We had the story in various rough cuts and it really broke my heart to have to drop it from the film for editing reasons. It is one of the most poignant testimonies I have ever filmed and I was so glad that it was selected for the platform. The editing of that piece is actually exactly how it was going to be used in Ophir. But it works much better on TCS–where it is enriched with additional contextualization–than it could have ever worked in Ophir.

DER: What has the response been to your film and website in academia? Is it being used in the classroom?

KL: We are currently building resources to help improve the utility of TCS in an educational setting. We know teachers want to open new worlds to their students, using rich multimedia materials that can help bring new voices into the classroom that might not otherwise be accessible. And part of the reason for making TCS was that it showcases a diverse range of thinkers, who have reflected on history and theorized it in novel ways. So it’s not a project that presents the testimony of participants, leaving it to European based intellectuals to turn into something meaningful. Bougainvilleans have made the meaning, and it is for those outside Bougainville to absorb this meaning because it has serious implications for how we understand colonialism as a project of racialized capitalism and how we can understand the relationship between environmentalism and post-capitalist futures.

But the big challenge is that educators are busy people with demanding workloads. They haven’t got the space to sit down and make sense of a complex online documentary or archive and how it might be incorporated into a classroom setting. They need strong supporting materials that can facilitate using TCS in a teaching setting. That is our challenge.

To be honest TCS is a unique resource; there are very few other resources quite like it. TCS embeds theorists of colonial history who have been participants in a long and complex struggle. Their work is carefully woven into a curated digital narrative which gives readers access to a range of primary resources. A large swathe of these resources have been leaked from inside the corporate-government organizations that are at the center of the conflict. So it should be a resource that resonates strongly with educational institutions in a period of ‘decolonization’ and increased interest in preventing environmental catastrophe. But we have a lot more work to do in promoting the platform and making it easier to incorporate into the curriculum.

Community Partnership in the Aftermath of Civil War

Screenshot of The Colonial Syndrome website

Screenshot of The Colonial Syndrome website:

DER: How has this project as a resource helped the community engage with their shared history of colonialism and the ensuing conflicts?

KL: War is dislocating and traumatic; events spiral out of control at a pace and scale the participants and witnesses struggle to fully absorb, or render into forms in which sense-making can begin. On Bougainville it was really apparent during the filming of Ophir that in the aftermath of the peace process there was a breathing out process taking place. People were beginning to take in the full weight of their history and trying to make sense of it, not simply as a recent event, but as a link in a chain that extended back to the initial phase of German colonization.

And yet there were little to no resources available on Bougainville to support this process of meaning-making. Certainly there was no resource made available during the peace process, which is not surprising perhaps given that Australia was bankrolling a lot of this process, and any process of sense-making involves critically analyzing Australia’s role in the conflict and the period that preceded it.

So a lot of the shooting–hundreds of hours of footage–captured this sense-making process. We got together and decided to begin compiling the footage to tell a longer story than what can be done in a feature format, and to also present that story in a format that allows different individuals to speak with one another by sharing their experiences.

DER: Could you elaborate on how the voices of the community played a part in shaping TCS and Ophir?

OP: Personally, the thing that I care the most about when working with documentary films is that the people who shared their stories can recognize themselves in the finished film, and that it [the film] portrays their reality with respect. I would not have imagined being able to share this story with the outside world if it wasn’t first and foremost fully embraced locally and in the region where it was made. And luckily it was, and in ways it even went beyond what we could have expected as filmmakers.

As I stated before, the film’s deep roots were laid as an oral history project, but inevitably it is also a creative one. With all the testimonies that we collected, our goal was to project onto the screen the ‘echoes’ of experiences being shared. What I mean by ‘echo’ is that in the majority of the film, while participants of course shared their singular stories, they often expressed things that were shared by other participants, sometimes even word for word. That’s what struck us the most while listening to all the testimonies touching on colonialism. It was how extraordinarily similar the experiences were, despite cultural differences and individual experiences. So an individual voice in the film does not actually just speak for that person, but their voice embodies stories of many others who may or may not appear on screen. This is what we discovered, and we found lots of strength in it. In turn, what happens is that progressively the invisible can become visible. Step by step, it is a portrait of a system and a place that starts to emerge. And we hoped that by working this way, the film could be accepted locally and perhaps also touch others in other parts of the world.

The first person that saw the film was Dr Ruth Saovanna. Her response was the most important of all. Although we knew Ruth quite well, as we had collaborated with her on the film, we had not planned that she would be one of its central characters. She happened to be beyond moved by it and told us that it truly carried the spirit of Bougainville with it. Had it not been the case, we would not have been confident to show the film anywhere, nor to promote it.

DER: Locally, what was the response to the film?

OP: At a local level the film received very good coverage in newspapers. It was screened informally around Bougainville, and even got a cinema release in Papua New Guinea’s (PNG) capital, Port Moresby, before being broadcast on national television.

The moment when the film got its cinema release was extremely important for all of us. While we knew the film was well received in Bougainville, we had no idea how it would be received in PNG, especially as it touches upon very sensitive issues due to the civil war and very deep lasting wounds on both sides.

To our huge surprise, no one in the world ended up understanding what we attempted to do creatively with the film better than two Papua New Guinean filmmakers [Godfreeman Kaptigau & Da Lovai]. They have a local podcast entitled “Not Culture!’ where they regularly review films. We were left absolutely speechless by their take on our film. It’s as if they could get into our brains and truly understand every single choice that had been made to present the story.

DER: Was there a response from indigenous communities outside PNG?

OP: The film started being shown around the world and received many accolades. But the most touching of all came directly from other indigenous communities – again in very unexpected ways. It would be too long to list them all but I would mention one story in particular. It came from Montreal First People’s Festival where the film won the Grand Jury Prize named after Rigoberta Menchú, the Guatemalan indigenous rights activist and laureate of the Nobel Peace Prize. The prize was handed over to us by her family and we had the occasion to speak with them. What came out of these exchanges was how Ophir somehow managed to portray their own stories of colonialism and indigenous resistance. Following that, we started receiving similar feedback from other communities in Bolivia and across South America…and then from Canada. We were approached by a Canadian teacher who is married to a Cree, as both wished to use Ophir as well as TCS in class while teaching indigenous kids. We were told of the kids’ extreme emotional reactions to the film, as they expressed that they were recognising themselves in it. Receiving such messages was extremely touching and surprising. It meant that the story of Bougainville was resonating beyond its shores.

DER: What about local community impacts?

OP: In terms of direct local impacts–I know it’s a bit of a buzzword in filmmaking– I am always a bit cautious when mentioning them, as I am not certain they can really be measured nor should be; it would be giving too much importance to what a film may achieve.

As a human being, of course I want to believe that access to information would directly lead to better decisions being taken, preventing societies from making the same mistakes over and over or would contribute in a small way to mend old wounds. And yet, looking at the state of the world, one can seriously doubt it sometimes. But it’s important to keep going and not stop believing in it. I see films as having the potential to bridge different worlds, as an invitation for audiences to experience other people’s realities and perhaps offer better understanding.

The only thing that I may be able to share in that regard is that following our film many things occurred in Bougainville. An official complaint was lodged by the Human Rights Law Center in Australia representing the local communities against Rio Tinto for human rights violations and to address the catastrophic environmental legacy of its mine. And we were told by members of the communities that the film had been extremely helpful in that process.As Kris mentioned earlier in his reply to your first question, there were virtually no resources available on Bougainville that examined what occurred and helped provide “meaning-making’ in any way. We can now hope that the film–and even more so the TCS platform–can contribute to alleviate that situation.


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