Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Review: Making Black Harvest

"He is in great pain from the wound," said Tepra, "but glad you are both here. The arrow came out cleanly, or he would be much worse. Just a little to one side and he would have died."

"Can we film?" I asked.

What? Sitting here at my desk fourteen years later, I'm shaken yet again by the cold-blooded prioritising behind that question, and I can offer no defence. That's how it was, that's what we had become.

That's the segment of Making Black Harvest I saw on ABC during my last trip to Australia in 2005. It's compelling, and brings up questions that affect everyone who puts together stories.

Bob Connolly and his wife Robin Anderson made two films in Papua New Guinea in the mid-80s and early 90s. They followed the fortunes of Joe Leahy, son of a white Australian who never acknowledged him as his own, and an indigenous woman from a tribe who had met white people for the first time in 1935.

Leahy ran a profitable coffee plantation together with the local villagers - a precarious arrangement that was very lucrative when it worked, and an absolute disaster when it didn't. Black Harvest is the story of when it didn't work. Making Black Harvest is the story of the making of that story.

It took me a while to get into Making Black Harvest. There is a complicated web of characters, with undulating loyalties, perceptions and politics. But once the action started - more than half way through the book - I realised how well I'd come to know these real-life characters.

Every good story has conflict, and this story is loaded with it. Not only the obvious bits like tribal warfare, but also the tense battle faced by Connolly and Anderson as they had to choose between intervening and observing. The Prime Directive is for filmmakers.

Being a true story, Making Black Harvest is not about tidy, happy endings. In fact, the conflict begun during filming in 1990 continued until the end of 1997. Not only that, Connolly implicates himself as unwittingly causing the war - a conclusion that maybe doesn't reflect reality, but it reflects Connolly's mixed feelings about the time they spent filming.

Read Making Black Harvest. It will take you on a journey full of the harrowing tension and drama, as well as the touching humanity and beauty of Papua New Guinea.

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