A joint press release by Public Films and Atuanui Press
July the 23rd, 2012
Last year Tonga’s rugby players impressed World Cup audiences with their skills and flair. Tonga is famous for its athletes, but few New Zealanders know that their closest neighbour also produces many distinguished intellectuals. Saturday the 4th of August will see the launch of a film and a book honouring the late Futa Helu, Tonga’s most important modern thinker and a man with a message very relevant to twenty-first century New Zealand.
Paul Janman’s film Tongan Ark is a portrait of ‘Atenisi, the private university Helu created in a swamp on the edge of Tonga’s capital city Nuku’alofa in the 1960s. Helu believed that European and Polynesian cultures needed to learn and borrow from one another, and the staff of ‘Atenisi put his ideas into practice by offering courses in grand opera and English literature as well as traditional Tongan music and dance. ‘Atenisi is the Tongan word for Athens, and Helu wanted to emulate ancient Greek philosophers like Socrates by promoting reasoned and open debate, even when such debate touched on controversial political issues.
Although it has always struggled for funding and resources, ‘Atenisi has had a huge influence on Tonga and on the wider Pacific region. Because of its emphasis on freedom of thought, ‘Atenisi was the cradle of the pro-democracy movement which swept Tonga in the nineties and noughties. Many of the school’s graduates have enjoyed distinguished careers inside and outside Tonga.
Tongan Ark shows the joys and tribulations of ‘Atenisi’s staff and students, as they celebrate learning and battle against poverty and political persecution. The film ends by showing Helu’s funeral in 2010, and by noting the determination of his colleagues to keep ‘Atenisi open.
August the 4th will also see the launch of On Tongan Poetry, a collection of essays Futa Helu wrote in the 1980s. In these texts, which have been published by Atuanui Press with the help of Creative New Zealand, Helu not only describes the style and function of traditional Tongan poetry but takes readers on a series of fascinating detours, as he discusses the ancient history of the Pacific, compares the work of English literary giants like Milton, Wordsworth, and Blake to that of their Tongan counterparts, and comments wittily on the politics and morality of the modern world.
The new film and book reflect Futa Helu’s widening influence in the second decade of the twenty-first century.
One of the central characters of Tongan Ark is Michael Horowitz, an American sociologist who left behind the fat salaries and creature comforts of First World academia to teach at Helu’s poverty-stricken school. “Futa Helu has something to teach the West” says Horowitz. “Our education systems are in danger of becoming cogs in the machine of commerce, but Futa criticised commercially-focused schooling, and insisted that students should be taught to criticise rather than conform to their societies. He believed in the free play of the mind, and that’s why so many Western scholars like myself travelled to Tonga to work with him, despite all the sacrifices involved.”
This year education has become the subject of intense political debate in New Zealand, as unions, parents and the government argue over ideas like national standards, school league tables, and school zoning. By showing us Futa Helu’s bold experiment in schooling, Tongan Ark can help broaden and enrich discussions about the New Zealand education system.
The Kiwi scholar and poet Scott Hamilton has written an introduction and afterword to Futa Helu’s essays about Tongan poetry. Hamilton admits that, until a few years ago, he didn’t think much about Tonga, and had never heard of Helu. Hamilton’s attitude changed, he explains, when he realised that “Tonga, with its history of successfully resisting colonisation in the nineteenth century and remaining independent, and ‘Atenisi, with its empahsis on the fusion of the best of European and Polynesian cultures, had a lot to offer New Zealanders. In New Zealand we talk a lot about biculturalism, about reconciling Maori and Pakeha cultures, but Futa Helu made biculturalism a reality” Hamilton says. “He is able to say fascinating things not only about Tongan but about palangi poets, because he understands both traditions, and because his double understanding gives him an unusual perspective.”
Tongan Ark will play at the Sky City Theatre at a quarter to five on August the 4th. After the film has finished, a function will be held in the Wintergarden lounge of the nearby Civic Theatre, where Tongan dancers and singers will perform, a discussion of Futa Helu and his ideas will take place, and copies of On Tongan Poetry will go on sale.
Public Films http://www.publicfilms.co.nz/
Atuanui Press/Titus Books http://titus.co.nz/
Visit the Tongan Ark facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/pages/Tongan-Ark/121780031235309
to follow discussions about the film.