REVIEW: Watching the world premiere in Auckland of Tongan Ark alongside about 700 Tongans was like being at sea in unruly, unpredictable but ultimately thrilling waters.
The first wave of laughing and yelling comes as lecturer Dr Kik Velt appears in the film, wearing a dress.
I was slightly horrified at the audience’s what I thought was, ill-timed laughter, worrying that Paul Janman, the film’s director, might take offence at people laughing at his work.
NZ Film Festival
But the howling was as perfectly timed and as sophisticated as this film and shows that Tongan Ark director Janman has got this film exactly right.
At one point, heavily pierced, dress-wearing Dr Velt says: “You can do and say what you like in Tonga, as long as it doesn’t mention God or the King.”
The audience erupted with laughter, perhaps laughing at themselves and the contradictions of living in a society where a Palagi wearing a dress in public will make people laugh, but will be accepted. Yet to openly criticise the king or God is frowned upon.
Futa Helu, the philosopher and educator this film is about, spent his life establishing a high school and university in Tonga, which was based on questioning everything.
Tongan Ark tells a remarkable story, about a remarkable man, Futa Helu, and his one of a kind, bold, unconventional university, called, ‘Atenisi, the Tongan word for Athens.
Ancient philosophy, opera and Tongan culture come together in this intimate portrait of a teacher, his school and his people as they navigate a sea of repression and doubt in a small but troubled Pacific island kingdom.
At one stage in the film, Futa Helu says: “There are two kinds of education: One for criticism! And one for submissiveness! There is no third.”
Professor Ian Campbell, a Pacific historian, who has published widely about Tonga, history and politics, as well as the Pacific Islands generally, speaks fondly of Helu.
Dr Campbell was a friend and colleague of Futa Helu and says: “I thought ‘Atenisi was a very bold experiment, if anything a little bit ahead of its time, which is not a bad thing.
“I think ‘Atenisi served a very important function, not just the university, but also the high school, in some ways more than the university, giving children a chance who had not succeeded or who had been rejected elsewhere, it really got a lot of people back on track.
“The same can be said for the university, it gave people opportunities for more advanced learning, than they could have got any other way. Futa’s idea was to make quality secondary education and advanced education available to everybody, but he was prepared to take people who had been rejected elsewhere, and the fees that he charged were very low.”
Dr Campbell says: “There is quite a lot of choice in secondary education in Tonga, you have the government-funded schools, which in a way are the elite schools, but then you have got a lot of church schools as well. For many years, church schools provided the bulk of the secondary education.
“What Futa did was to add to that mix and introduce different teaching methods and a different educational ethos and a different curriculum, which he felt served Tonga’s needs and the aspirations of Tongan youth better.
“He had a less authoritarian approach to education and he was dedicated to inculcating a critical spirit and also from getting away from a purely utilitarian and also getting away from the kind of rigidity of thinking in education that I think he thought typified a lot of the church schools.
“Futa was a friend, I was very attached to Futa and very sorry at his passing.”
Three of Futa Helu’s children are in Grey Lynn, rehearsing for their performances at the films screening in Auckland and in Wellington on Friday, August 10.
Sisi’uno Helu, Futa Hela’s second eldest daughter says she inherited her father’s power. Normally this would be passed to the eldest child, but Futa Helu chose Sisi’uno to be the director of ‘Atenisi on his passing.
Sisi’uno says: “I have been trying to manage the place since Futa passed away. It has been very difficult, there is a great amount of uncertainty, but also a spirit stays within me that the university has a very important and vital contribution to education and culture not only in Tonga but also in the Pacific.
“I thought at times when we were going to give it up, then there is nothing like ‘Atenisi in the Pacific to give the Pacific alternative different direction of education, and preservation of art and traditions.”
How does ‘Atenisi survive today?
“We have a very good, well-educated alumni of ex-students who have gone through the ‘Atenisi university who have gone on to New Zealand or Australia to further their studies, and they have come back to offer courses and teach on a volunteer basis.
“Sometimes they ask for pay and sometimes they come back and offer to do this out of love for ‘Atenisi. Also the government has started to subsidise tertiary funding, which started around 2010.”
I spoke to some ex pupils and teachers who were at the premiere, including Peter Coxen, a former ‘Atenisi teacher who said: “I first went to ‘Atenisi to accompany my wife in 1987.
“Our son came with us. My wife, Eve, was writing about ‘Atenisi for her masters, subsequently I lived there again and taught there in both the high school and the university in 1993.
“Futa and the family have become like family to us over the years. I think the film was a wonderful tribute to a great thinker, a very humble and erudite man, multi-talented, very funny. I think Paul needs to be commended for his work.”
Eve Coxen also taught at ‘Atenisi and was drawn to Helu’s work.
“I was doing a Masters in Anthropology and I found writings by Futa in the library. I was a teacher at Auckland Girls Grammar, and I found his philosophical take on education very interesting – the way he was questioning the notion of ‘relevance’ in education.
“This was a time in New Zealand, mid-1980s, when there was a lot of talk about the fact that our schools were not serving the labour force, weren’t producing the sorts of students that could serve the labour market because they weren’t relevant.
“It was within the school system I perceived that relevance was a notion that was applied to Māori and Pacific, relevance was equated with practical, non academic, and there was quite a split between the notion of academic for our sorts of kids and relevant programmes for other kids.
“Futa was writing about that and talking about it as education for social slavery, using quite dramatic language, but it was very strong around the Pacific I discovered. You have fairly elite schools for children of the well-off and the urbanised and you have a lesser education for rural kids.”
Eve Coxen said it was fantastic to see the film, adding: “Paul and Echo [Zeanah] have done a wonderful job. We were there when Futa was in his prime. You look at the impoverished conditions, but it was the wealth of being there, the informal conversations, the educational discourse that was going on was just so enriching, so fascinating.”
Paul Janman studied social anthropology with Dr Okusitino Mahina, at Auckland University and explains the film’s birth: “I was taken with the ideas of Okusi about critical education, the way that he managed to use the roots of Western thinking as a tool of understanding and preserving Tongan culture, which was a really surprising and interesting idea.
“The idea was the roots of Western culture had been neglected and that somehow by reviving those roots you were preserving the best of the West, and giving you a means to understand what needed to be preserved in Tonga, as well as criticising what the West had become and criticising what Tonga had become.
“The fact that it came out of this ancient Greek philosopher, Heraclitus of Ephesus, was so fascinating, I had to go to the source.
“So I went to Tonga that I taught for two years at ‘Atenisi Institute, with my partner Echo Zeanah, who later became the producer of the film, we taught literature and fine arts at Artenisi.
“When we had finished those two years, we decided somebody had to make a film about this.
“I went to Tonga every year and then weeks at a time. I started to create a portrait of Futa and his students.”
Janman spent seven years travelling back and forth to Tonga to make the film.
The audience feels like one huge village. Suzanna and Vai Taufa were there, Suzanna said: “One of my cousins was performing tonight and I wanted to find out about ‘Atenisi.
“Now I think it is pretty cool what Futa has done, and it is very inspirational, hopefully ‘Atenisi goes on forever.”
Sefita Hao’uli is an ex student of ‘Atenisi. Sefita gave a short speech at the end of the film’s standing ovation, saying: “I went back and taught at ‘Atenisi. Futa is a close relative.
“As a piece of work, to have taken seven years, and to capture as much as possible, what Futa was all about, in parts it was moving, in parts you could see the quirkiness of the man he was – he certainly wasn’t Mr Perfect.
“The essence of what he did for education in Tonga and for society at large. Paul, in the 90 minutes he had, was able to capture nearly 40 years worth…I think as an artist, as a craftsman, we acknowledge that.”
Tongan Ark will next screen at the the Paramount Theatre Film Festival, Wellington, on Friday, August 10, at 6.45pm.
Karen Abplanalp's image gallery of the Tongan Ark premiere