Storytelling in the PNG Highlands

Man being interviewed in Papua New GuineaKokoda, cannibalism and tribal warfare have all featured in films about Papua New Guinea, but for the first time the Highland people are telling their own story through a new UTS project.

Papua New Guinea’s exotic landscapes and indigenous people have drawn interest from international filmmakers for decades – think Kokoda, Lionheart and the BBC’s Lost Land of the Volcano – but there’s never been a strong focus on a home-grown film industry until now. The Yumi Piksa film project, which is pidgin for ‘our pictures’, was started up by UTS PhD student Verena Thomas last year as a vehicle to teach locals the art of filmmaking while recording vital knowledge shared by the communities in the PNG Highlands.

The UTS venture, operating in collaboration with the University of Goroka, has produced three short documentary films that have been distributed to international audiences, with two accepted into the Pacific International Documentary Film Festival in Tahiti in January this year. The project was also featured in Scene by Scene – Films of Asia Pacific, a four-part documentary series, recently broadcast on CNN, the ABC and Australia Network.

“I had made a documentary in PNG previously, called Papa Bilong Chimbu, which tells the story of my great-uncle John Nilles who spent over 50 years as a missionary there,” Verena Thomas says. “It was a story about the shared history between my uncle and the Chimbu people in the Highlands and my personal perspective on travelling to PNG over 10 years after my great-uncle passed away.

“When I went back to PNG to screen the film in the communities where it was shot, I received some amazing reactions from people. I was asked to make more documentaries but felt that it made better sense to train local people to make films than to continue the history of outside filmmakers recording PNG stories. That’s basically how Yumi Piksa started off.”

Vice-Chancellor of the University of Goroka, Dr Gairo Onagi, says: “[It is] great for the university to gain international exposure for a technological and useful workshop that was helpful to both the students and community… Yumi Piksa provides a new and challenging method of telling ‘our’ stories to the world. It also provides a new method of data collection.”

The Yumi Piksa project is now expanding into the area of HIV/AIDS awareness. Funded by the PNG National AIDS Council and AusAID, in collaboration with the UTS: Centre for Health Communication, in the coming months local students will be trained to record the narratives of HIV/AIDS sufferers and produce visual education and prevention materials.

The new project, called Komuniti Tok Piksa, led by the Director of the UTS: Centre for Health Communication, Professor Rick Iedema, will tap into the Yumi Piksa model of training and will enable local researchers and filmmakers to produce their own material. “Engagement with visual media in a way that respects local community structures and gives voice to its members on their own terms is gaining increasing importance for sustainable development in PNG and the wider Pacific region,” says Thomas, who graduated with a MA in Media Arts and Production from UTS in 2004.

“We are committed to contributing to such development and to collaborating with organisations that would like to create new understandings through the use of culturally appropriate ways of using the media.”

Editor: Chrissa Favaloro; based on an original article by Terry Clinton