Searching for JJ

Some people spend their lives in endless, often fruitless pursuit of an Academy Award. Those people are not from Vanuatu.

Vanuatu woke up today to a rather startling piece of news. Tanna, a movie filmed entirely with amateur indigenous actors on location in and around the kastom village of Yakel, was a finalist for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Then it rolled over and went back to sleep.

When I got the news of the nomination, I began a full-court press to get a reaction from the cast.

That turned into an adventure.

I confess it freely: My heart skipped a beat. Not just because of the inarguable beauty of the film. Not just because it is woven of the same stuff that persuaded me to make a new life in the South Pacific so many years ago.

Mostly, it was because I wanted to see the look on Marceline’s face.

Marceline plays a key role in Tanna’s tragic story. She was nine years old when the movie was made. Significant parts of the film are viewed through her eyes, and her innocence is the gateway to unutterable grief before the credits roll.

I met Marceline on her very first day outside of the island of Tanna. She had never seen a town as big as Port Vila (POP. 50,000) before, and it was exhausting. When she and some of the cast showed up at our radio station late in the afternoon, she was done in. I asked her a few questions in Bislama, and received monosyllabic answers in return. Before the interview was even halfway done, she was full length on the leather couch, sound asleep, her head in cast-mate Marie Wawa’s lap.

Marceline’s world in Tanna is not a fiction. It’s not a memory, either. The scenes you see in Tanna are still playing themselves out today. Her clothing might be a little more natty than what you saw in the film, but grass skirts are still the going thing.

My heart went out to the little girl as I watched her struggling to come to terms with a place that had car after car after car, a place that was noisome and dusty and loud.

I started to take her photo at one point, but immediately relented when I saw her begin to flinch.

One of the stars of the movie Tanna, nine year-old Marceline, smiles during the gala premiere of the movie at Tana Cine in Port Vila. Tanna opens to the public tomorrow.

How in the world was she going to be able to deal with the strobing tumult of the red carpet in Venice? The cast members were en route to the Venice Film Festival, following Tanna’s selection in the prestigious Critic’s Week. The film went on to win the People’s Choice award and the Critic’s Award for cinematography.

On their return, I caught up with the group at the airport, shortly before they headed back to their island. Marceline seemed perfectly at home in her skin, a changed creature from the shy and hesitant child I’d seen only a couple of weeks before.

“How did it go?” I asked her in Bislama. “When all the photographers were taking your photo all at once, how did you manage it?”

She shot me a worldly, knowing look, and said, “You get used to it. After a while, it’s no problem.”

The next time they came to Port Vila, it was for the Vanuatu premiere of the film, at our only actual cinema. Marceline and the rest of the core cast members were there, all dressed up in their ceremonial regalia.

This time, when I pointed the camera at her, she gave me a smile as wide as a river.

Starring in one of the most notable films of the year doesn’t quite have the same cachet in Vanuatu as it does elsewhere. For one thing, people have to know about it.

We contacted the Cultural Centre, which facilitates contact with Tanna’s traditional villages. They told us that the phone number they had didn’t work anymore, but there was good news: JJ and Dain, producer and lead actor respectively, had moved up in the world.

They’d both left the island and found employment. As night watchmen with a local security company.

No number was available, but this is Vanuatu, after all. We decided to use the tried and tested coconut telegraph method.

The Cultural Centre worker told us that JJ—whom the world knows as the interpreter on Channel 4’s wildly popular Meet The Natives—was still around. He’d acted as ambassador/interpreter/facilitator between a group of Tannese men from a village that bestowed demigod status on Prince Phillip, and their hosts at different locations in the UK, including Prince Phillip himself.

JJ, happily ensconced at the Daily Post office after a day-long search for him.

JJ is a man about town. He’s gregarious, knowing, worldly and warm-hearted. He’s also a gifted promoter and knows how to keep himself in the story. An essential person, in other words, if you want to spend six months creating a film based on tragic events that are still vividly etched in the memories of the people of Yakel village.

Dain is utterly the man he portrays in Tanna. Laconic, deeply honourable and dignified, terse almost to a fault. And smouldering. Sadly, he’s also gone back to Tanna. He’d had enough of punching the clock.

And we won’t see Marceline until she transits through on her way to Los Angeles.

But we soldiered on throughout the day, fruitlessly searching for JJ, our last best hope. Our Modus Operandi was simple: Find a place he’d been seen, go there, and ask where we could find him.

Again and again, I said the magic words ‘Academy Award’. No bite. People smiled and said, ‘Oh, that’s nice.’

‘It’s the highest possible prize a movie can win,’ I said.

‘Is it? That’s very good,’ they replied, in the tone a parent takes when a child brags about that shot they took at soccer.

Nobody had seen JJ, and nobody was particularly fussed about that, least of all JJ. We tracked down his dad, though.

‘Do you know where he got to?’ I ask.

‘Oh who knows with that boy? He goes where he wants,’ said Dad, half fondly, half peevishly.

‘Well,’ I said, ‘the entire world wants to hear from him. We really anxious to get him down to the radio station for an interview.’

‘Okay,’ said Dad, nodding gravely. ‘How’s tomorrow?’

‘Tomorrow’s fine. But today would be much better.’

We got back to the station, ran our nightly news piece on the difference between an American Oscar nominee and a Ni Vanuatu nominee. I put the finishing touches on this story and was moments away from filing…

Our receptionist said to me, ‘Boss, there’s a man to see you.’

‘Who?’

‘He says he’s from Tanna.’

JJ, at last. He came sauntering in with a casual smile.

I ushered him up to our studio and quickly into the interview. He was imperturbable.

‘Going back to LA is like going back to my home,’ he said with a grin. He’s not exaggerating much. JJ has been a key fixer on two significant television series, and the cast of Tanna have strolled down so many red carpets that they’re beginning to think that’s what a building entrance looks like.

The lesson we take from the day is almost Zen. The movie star who works as an occasional night watchman can wander around town all day without a care in the world or a penny in his pocket, and sleep better at night than Meryl or Leonardo have in their lives.

We finish the interview, take a few photos—in which JJ demonstrates his ineffable cool—and when we’re done and walking to the door, he says to me, ‘They told me you would pay for my bus fare if I came down?’

This won’t get better soon

It’s already become clear that the White House explicitly overrode a DHS determination that contended the ban didn’t apply to Green Card holders and other valid, vetted residents. The ACLU is reporting that some officials are not abiding by a number of stay order issued at courts in at least three locations.

As a legal instrument, at least one scholar sees this particular Executive Order as so incredibly flawed that it won’t stand up to a sustained legal attack by the ACLU, CAIR and others.

Most worrying though are the reports circulating that the drafting process bypassed the normal interdepartmental and legal review stages, and that DHS was only briefed on the content of the Executive Orders as they were being signed. This doesn’t sound like an administration that’s particularly worried about adhering to the letter of the law, or bringing a lot of people into the conversation. Not sure how that will stand up over time. Politics is often petty and vengeful, and the White House is already leaking like a sieve. It might be that their incompetence is what does them in. It may be that their unwillingness to share power will do it.

My personal feeling is that neither one will stop them. I think people severely underestimate the lengths that this administration will go to to see this through. When Donald Trump promised the people of America that he would never back down, that he would do everything to advance the cause… I think he was speaking literally. When Steve Bannon says that we’re at war with Islam, I think he believes it fervently. When Flynn and others portray their work as an existential fight, I think they’re sincere in that.

Left-leaning people and other opponents have mobilised quickly, but they’re expecting the administration to react the way they would react. They think that public shaming, legal action and political activism will drive Donald Trump’s administration back. I fear they’re wrong. They will be seen as traitors and subversives, and they’ll be treated accordingly, through formal and informal means. They don’t realise that their resistance will ultimately have to be physical. They should be reading up on their Thoreau right about now….

Weapons of the Weak

Radio New Zealand journalist, Johnny Blades, created a memorable image last week when he posted a montage of six heads of government from some of the smallest states of the world, each standing at the podium at the United Nations General Assembly.

The leaders of these six countries—Vanuatu, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Nauru, Marshall Islands and Tuvalu—all raised the issue of continuing human rights abuses in West Papua, and advocated for its right to self-determination.

These representations should by rights have emerged from the Pacific Islands Forum in Palau, but if rumour is to be trusted, the organisation’s larger economies are responsible for the Forum’s resounding silence on the issue.

In a tacit demonstration of the unwillingness to live within the Forum’s constraints, a half dozen Pacific leaders engaged in an orchestrated manoeuvre, a chorus of complaint against the clear pattern of systemic disregard for the human rights of indigenous West Papuans.

Talk may be all we can do about it, but at least we can do that. Continue reading

We should spend more time on sport

Sport and athletic achievement are—when we keep drugs and money out of the picture—one of the few human activities with few if any downsides.

As we saw last week, they provide us with moments of unity and pride the like of which we don’t often see elsewhere.

Individual and simple team sports are low-cost ways of occupying our youth and providing them with invaluable lessons about hard work, achievement and excellence.

In other words, the very attributes that are so lacking when we bemoan the state of society today.

One thing is particularly clear: for whatever reason, Vanuatu’s athletes seem to operate at a higher baseline standard than countries many times our size. Our beach volleyball team came within a couple of rallies of an Olympic berth. Our rowers proved themselves worthy of standing on the world stage. Likewise our boxers and table tennis wunderkind Joshua Shing.

And now, our latest generation of football players is poised to showcase their achievement at football’s premier global event.

Who can read these facts and not ask, ‘How cool is that?’

But there’s more to sport than just that. Look past the puffery and patriotism of competitive sports, and there’s an entire universe of personal discovery and growth.
Continue reading

Silence an ‘indictment’: Chetwynd

Justice Chetwynd yesterday acquitted the men accused of intentional assault on Florence Lengkon, accepting the defence’s submission that they had no case to answer on those specific charges.

The people of Vanuatu, however, have still to answer for their silence.

Judge Chetwynd ruled that there was indisputable evidence that Ms Lengkon was struck once ‘forcefully’ on the head, and said that if that was the case then it is impossible that all three men could be guilty of landing the blow.

The Prosecution’s case rested almost entirely on a statement submitted by two police officers, who stated that co-accused Elton Worwor put them at the scene of the crime.

But the police officers didn’t ask some very basic questions during that interview, such as how Mr Worwor knew they were involved, whether he actually saw them strike Ms Lengkon, and if so, which of the three of them actually struck her.

Ultimately, the evidence was ruled inadmissible. The three men charged with the assault on Ms Lengkon had no case to answer, and they were therefore acquitted of this serious charge.

But… Justice Chetwynd paused meaningfully before continuing. He scanned the packed courtroom and stated that the fact that over 50 people could have seen what happened and not one of them stepped forward to identify the culprit is ‘an indictment’ on our society. Continue reading

The Violence Must Stop

For the third time in a week, the nation’s media are reporting cases of serious crimes against visitors to our country. In every case, the victims were female.

Gender based violence in Vanuatu was described as ‘horrific’ by Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells following her recent visit here. This is only the most recent example of a litany of concern that visiting women of influence have expressed.

When are we going to listen?

After Florence Lengkon was assaulted, nearly a thousand women and men, young and old, marched to call for an end to this callous, cruel disregard for the dignity and rights of the most vulnerable people in our society.

The Deputy Prime Minister, responsible for tourism, responded swiftly, stating that he expected arrests to be made. Within a day, it was announced that the people responsible had been brought in for questioning.

Now, we’re told that it may be one of the same men who bashed Florence that beat up a Canadian woman, allegedly over a mere fender bender.

The Police reportedly failed to respond to her assault. The Police failed to arrive when called to the scene of the heinous attack reported in today’s newspaper, telling the victim to proceed directly to hospital. It was the local chiefs who brought the suspect in a brutal assault and rape in rural Santo earlier this month.

The Vanuatu Police Force do many things right. They could do many things better. But this complacence in the face of violence and brutality is symptomatic of an illness that afflicts the entire country.

Why is it okay to bash up, hospitalise and even kill our women? Continue reading

Brexit, pursued by a bear

What do Britain’s EU exit vote, Donald Trump and Vanuatu have in common? Too much, actually.

When Great Britain turned its back on Europe, markets reacted predictably, shedding trillions of dollars in value. Japan’s Nikkei exchange, among the first to open after the vote result, suffered its biggest loss in over a decade and a half, knocking nearly 8% off its value in a day.

Media have been all over the calamity, reporting the unintended consequences of the UK’s knee-jerk rejection of Polish plumbers. Likewise, the international commentariat have made hay from the unprecedented—some say unforeseeable—rise of Donald Trump as the Republican presidential candidate in the upcoming US election.

Many have asked, but few have answered: how did we get here, anyway?

People have been griping about immigrants since the dawn of time. I’m pretty sure that any self-respecting classical scholar would be able to dig up a Roman rant against those shifty Gauls tramping all over traditional Republican values and stealing Roman jobs.

Donald Trump has been angling for a seat in the Oval Office since 1998. But as long as we were willing to listen to reason, he never stood a chance. Nor did the ideas propounded by the UK Independence Party, or UKIP.

Social media changed that. The sudden flood of counter-factual, exclusionist, biased, fear-mongering noise—don’t call it information—that floods our Facebook timelines has subverted our conception of how things are, and how they could be.

This isn’t accidental, nor is it new. Continue reading

Rising Buddha, Perching Crane

Chinese triumphalism may seem strident at times, but it’s not entirely unwarranted

The development of China in recent decades is best considered as geography, not landscape. The combination of market forces with what was coyly labelled ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’ has achieved something previously unimaginable.

At the end of nearly a century of conflict and unrest culminating in the Cultural Revolution, it was hard to picture China at peace, let alone prospering.

Today, it’s hard to imagine otherwise.

Most people still think that China’s great wonders are the Forbidden City and its Great Wall. But these are dwarfed by its current transformation.

The pastoral arcadia that characterised its classical landscapes is gone.

Where cormorants once preened on posts on the Yangtze’s shores, the horizon is now punctuated by steel construction cranes perched atop half-completed buildings.

They are almost literally everywhere. In the suburbs of Hefei city, I counted 32 of them outside my train window. Continue reading

No apologies, but open eyes

As it does every couple of years, China has invited media professionals from across the Pacific islands to pay a two-week visit to their country.

Part junket, part professional development exercise, the tour is clearly designed to soften views concerning China and its engagement with the rest of the world.

And in important ways, it’s working.

Only one of the Pacific islanders has visited China before, but the first days in Beijing offer some predictable experiences.

In almost comical irony, no photos are allowed at the entrance to the Xinhua News Agency building. One photographer is politely but firmly asked to delete two shots he’s already taken.

Asked why, a minder simply laughs, apparently in appreciation of the absurdity. He says, “I don’t know,” in a tone suggesting that there’s no point in him inquiring.

But the number of unexpected events is, well, surprising.

The delegation is met by senior officials within the Foreign Affairs and Commerce Ministries, and though it’s nearly impossible to judge progress from a single meeting, delegation members were left with the impression that they were being taken seriously.

Even if taken only as a matter of protocol, the level of official engagement is far higher than seen in visits to western nations. Then again, the respective roles of media and government are far more closely aligned in China than elsewhere. It could just be the done thing.

Nonetheless, it was refreshing to have a serious discussion about Chinese lending and commercial activity in the Pacific with people in a position to speak with authority. Continue reading

The reporter is not your friend

[Originally delivered as a speech on World Press Freedom day]

The reporter is not your friend—and you should be glad of that.

Well, okay, the reporter can be your friend, but she’s the honest friend who tells you yeah, your butt does look big in that. He’s the friend who stands between you and that bully and says, ‘You don’t have the right to speak to her like that!’ And then turns to you and says, ‘And neither do you.’

The reporter is the friend that tells you what your other friends are saying about you. Whether you want to hear it or not.

The reporter is the friend who tells you what you did was wrong, and who still visits you in jail. They don’t hate you when you don’t agree; they don’t like you just because you do.

It never struck me until I started working at a newspaper just how it felt for people to see their name in the headline. Good news or bad, it’s a shock.

And it never struck me until I started working at a newspaper just how it felt to put your name in the byline day after day. By far, the response to the work we do at the Daily Post is positive. But when the response is negative, you feel it deeply. Continue reading