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?’

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

Consultation means negotiation

Despite friendly advice from numerous people close to the process, it appears that the government is proceeding with its draft revenue review plan much as it has with past policies. Doing things the ordinary way wouldn’t be a problem if it weren’t for the fact that this particular policy will have an extraordinary impact on the economic landscape.

Extraordinary policies require extraordinary efforts.

We accept in good faith the government’s promise to deliver a number of important briefing documents, explainers on key topics, and basic information about taxes and how they work. Good information is essential to any discussion.

And we have no reason to doubt the government’s promise to conduct public awareness events, either. They have committed themselves to holding public meetings at least in the municipal centres, and possibly elsewhere.

Some people have voiced alarm at the fact that draft legislation had been prepared even in advance of the CoM decision to proceed with the revenue review plan. This is common practice.

The mere existence of draft legislation doesn’t imply that a fix is in. The Family Protection Act existed in draft format for nearly a decade before it was finally enacted. The draft Cybercrime Bill is still—rightly—getting kicked back and forth. The Right to Information Bill has yet to see the Parliamentary floor, too, in spite of being in an advanced state of completion for some time.

No, the issue that is raising peoples’ hackles, in the private sector and at the grassroots, is the sense that a plan is being prepared, and that the only chance they will have to weigh in on it will be in an up/down vote.

Taxation is one of the most fundamental aspects of any democracy. Along with the ballot box, it’s one of the few ways that a citizen interacts directly in the administration of the country. And that’s why the people need to be presented with alternatives, rather than a simple yes-or-no decision. 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

A Prayer for Fiji

The first survey flights are done, and although there has been welcome evidence that many communities in Fiji have survived intact, the number of towns and villages that have been obliterated is distressingly large.

While we can take comfort that Suva, Nadi and other international ports of call are more of less intact, the numerous smaller islands in Winston’s path, along with the lower part of Vanua Levu, have clearly been devastated.

On Viti Levu, Lautoka, Ba and Tavua all sustained significant damage, and the evidence from elsewhere is that numerous shoreside communities have simply been wiped away by the combination of record-strength winds and a massive storm surge.

None of us who experienced the power of cyclone Pam’s winds can remain unmoved by the photographic and video evidence emerging from the overflights of Fiji’s affected areas. The images are depressingly familiar. The blasted landscape, the corrugated metal roofing dotting the countryside like confetti, ships run aground and ashore, whole hillsides collapsed. Entire villages have been left without a single domicile standing.

This cyclone is the strongest storm ever to strike the Fiji islands. Clearly, Winston’s relief and reconstruction effort will be similar in scale to Fiji’s economy as Pam’s has proven to ours. Continue reading

BJ Skane is Gone

Sacred cows make the tastiest hamburgers.’ — Abbie Hoffman

B. J. Skane was the quintessential gadfly. She pestered, questioned, challenged and often infuriated everyone around her. But we are diminished without her.

In preparing this column, I scanned over a hundred pieces that B. J. wrote for the Daily Post over the past couple of years. Topics range from West Papuan cultural legends The Black Brothers to attacks on the folly of the Black sands fish factory (remember that?), to yachting rules, to ground-breaking court cases.

B. J. was a terrier with a story. Once she’d got her teeth into something, there was no letting go. For better or for worse, she would immerse herself in the arcane details of her topic of the day, and she would not relent until she felt she could explain it in perfect detail.

For anyone attempting to edit her work, this proved a fascinating challenge. No one could gainsay her desire to tell all of the truth, whether we wanted to hear it or not. There are few of us here who did not—at least once or twice over the years—feel a momentary desire to hide under the desk when B. J. walked into the newsroom.

But she was rarely, if ever, wrong on the facts. Continue reading

Barefoot on the red carpet

‘Tanna’ is a gem of a movie, and its stars deserve to shine among the brightest lights of the glitterati

There are two ways to make a movie like ‘Tanna’:

You could spend millions housing and caring for a cast and crew of hundreds, millions more on costumes, sets, make-up and outlandish logistical costs, and even more on lavish, painstakingly built CGI effects.

Or you could take a couple of hand-held cameras and go live in Yakel village for six months.

Both approaches would probably work, more or less. The first will get you The Mission, or Mosquito Coast, or—heaven help you—Fitzcarraldo. But only the latter is capable of capturing the heart of kastom in Tanna.

‘Tanna’ is visually lush and—happily—not polished. The actors have bad hair days, they have calloused hands and dirt under their nails. And this matters, because ‘Tanna’ is not just another hackneyed love story transposed into an exotic locale. It is composed of the essence of life in traditional Vanuatu. Continue reading

Dissolution is no solution

An increasing number of people are coming to the conclusion that the only way out of the current political impasse is via dissolution of Parliament. While it may prove to be the only workable option, that doesn’t mean it’s what we need, let alone what we want.

Prime Minister Kilman finally spoke to the people of Vanuatu Monday, confirming that he had asked the President for Parliament to be dissolved on the 16th of October.

The President had already made his perspective clear: Dissolution must be seen as a last resort.

He’s not wrong. Contrary to Mr Kilman’s protestations, it is within the President’s purview to defer—if not outright deny—such a request. Presidential powers are largely ceremonial, but they’re deliberately vague precisely because he is expected to exert a moral influence on the country and its leadership, especially under extraordinary circumstances.

In Vanuatu today, our circumstances are nothing if not extraordinary.

Dissolution is a defeat. It is an admission that Parliament has failed to do its job. Continue reading

Humble Beginnings

In an exclusive interview, Manasseh Sogavare describes his long personal journey to the top

Asked how he started his career, Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare laughs wryly.

“I entered public service as a toilet cleaner and tea boy,” he chuckles. It was, he says, “a tough, rough beginning.”

“And I learned from that.”

If Mr Sogavare’s example is any guide, there are few shortcuts in life. “What I got is through hard work, and basically I worked my way…. I worked my way up through public service…

in all my life in public service, I worked in the Inland Revenue division.

“I started as toilet cleaner in the Inland Revenue Division and localised the Commissioner of Inland Revenue post in twelve years.

“I got all the degrees along the way, and all the promotions.”

He smiles in recollection. “The people that I’d salute along the way: ‘Good morning, sir!’ … the people with white socks—these were colonial days—I’d welcome them into the building and direct them to their desk.

“Three remained when I became Commissioner of Inland Revenue, and the role changed to ‘Good morning SIR!’”

He snapped a smart salute, mimicking how they would receive him, and then allowed himself an amiable laugh. Continue reading