This was one of those rare documentary shoots that the usual Red Earth duo of Jason and I would be whittled down to just one of us. Not unfamiliarly dictated by a constrained budget, we could only afford to send me to Papua New Guinea to act as both cinematographer and interviewer. Our subject was Bill Callister (and his wife Sandra, but she couldn’t make the trip) and the project is The Outsiders, a documentary-styled resource following the ins-and-outs of life as a cross-cultural worker. This would be the third country and fourth subject we have shot for the Outsiders (you can also find out about our previous experiences in Thailand and Ethiopia this year).
So this scene was to be set on Misima Island, a 40km-long jungle-covered paradise less than an hour’s flight south-east of mainland PNG. It is a place that Bill used to primarily call home for him and his family for many of the 30+ years he has lived in Papua New Guinea. Having communicated solely via email and one audio Skype call, Bill and I finally met in person as my flight from Port Moresby stopped briefly in Alotau en route to Misima in order to pick up Bill and a couple of other passengers. Despite being forewarned, I’m sure Bill’s first thought of meeting this stranger who immediately wanted to start filming everything he was doing was a realisation that his privacy had gone out the window as his formerly quiet world was being put on show! Still, Bill took it in stride and throughout the 10 days we were together he was always accommodating when I asked him to show me this or walk over there or explain what that person said.
Life on Misima is a throwback to a simpler world in terms of infrastructure, technology and diversion that permeates modern society. Relationships are the core of life there and so, in that respect, life is very much not “simpler” but made all the more richer for it, good and bad. As such, the 14,000 inhabitants of the island make every effort to know one another in their respective communities and spend a great deal of time relating and socialising. I was welcomed with a warm handshake and introduction by many people as soon as I arrived, and when watching Bill move throughout the community, he would have the same sort of contact with most people he bumped into, even if he only saw them a short time before. Similarly, I was seen off at the end of my stay with a little speech from an elder, the shaking of many hands and a few people that got up early the next morning to see me off to the airport.
For an introverted city-dweller like myself who is used to living somewhat anonymously in a Western culture that celebrates individuality and materialism over community and sharing, it takes some getting used to being in a place that is governed by the opposite lifestyle. Despite there being no telephone or internet coverage whatsoever, no general electricity supply (and therefore no aircon, refrigeration or televisions), a sporadic water supply, no plumbing and not even windows in most structures, life managed to go on quite smoothly and it was easy to forget about all of those must-have items of convenience and technology that we can’t live without at home. It is surprisingly easy to just sit and watch the local kids kick around a soccer ball made from a plastic bag, observe someone shimmy up a 10 meter coconut tree, old ladies deftly de-husking coconuts or groups harmonizing South Pacific-inspired hymns, and not even think that you’re missing the latest MasterChef.
The purpose of this shoot – and indeed the entire Outsiders project – is to capture the struggles, joys, dynamics and impressions of missionaries living in a foreign culture, sharing with the audience some of their gained wisdom and helping us to understand why they do this work. Bill Callister, 66, had a keen interest in translation work well before following his calling to Misima, and has largely immersed himself in language translation work – particularly bible translation – ever since his teens. He still loves the work and I could see it in his enthusiasm when he spoke of it or sat down with his local volunteers as they worked through their current task: the somewhat imposing Old Testament. This was not just about translating the bible though: Misima (as well as hundreds of other language groups in PNG) had never had a written form of the language before missionaries arrived last century. Bill adopted a community that largely didn’t read or write what little written language they did have, so they set about working with the local people to improve overall literacy. By creating a much-improved dictionary and offering their own literacy and vernacular classes, they influenced the next generation to educate themselves better and, ultimately, understand how their Christian beliefs are strengthened by what they could read – with their own eyes – in the bible. Moreover, the bible spoke to them in their own cultural references as well, so ancient visualisations didn’t seem so foreign. The success of their work was immediately apparent as I spoke to members of the community, teachers, pastors and councilmen. When I visited the local church, people were enthusiastically reading passages from a book that they previously had to rely on a pastor to interpret the English-language version for them. As spiritualised magic was a big part of the belief system pre-Christianity, it wasn’t until people could read the stories in the bible that they were finally able to put the idea of spells and curses behind them once and for all.
For a fairly short visit, it was rich with visual imagery and experiences. One timely opportunity was that a significant member of the community passed away shortly before I arrived and so I was privileged to experience a Misima funeral and the accompanying rituals and pig feasts. I gained exclusive access to everything by virtue of being held in some esteem as the rare visiting foreigner, so I captured most of it on video, offering to provide them with a record of that event once I edited the material. From the boat arrival of the body to the ritualised wailing, the eye-poppingly graphic pig slaughter and subsequent dividing up of the raw flesh to expectant families and the touching services all were a unique look at this fascinating culture. My timely visit to this village afforded me access to a world that is not readily seen by outsiders. I am very appreciative of Bill’s knowledge of the community, his fluency of Misima language and his patience in fielding my many questions for helping me gain a more thorough understanding of all-things Misima. By introducing me to many people while I was there – many of whom did speak some English – I felt like a part of the Misima family and was not treated like a stranger to be feared but rather embraced. I was very thankful for that.
Like Red Earth’s Ethiopian experience, it reminds me of how genuine relationships – and not financial wealth or perceived status – are the cornerstone to a healthy community. As our society gets increasingly focused on material wealth, the more we all lose out from this important facet of human existence. As I leave some of these vibrant countries to return to Australia, I can’t help but think that, on some levels, I am leaving a much wealthier community for a poorer one.
In the end, Bill relaxed into his role in front of the camera so well that he often made suggestions of things to shoot or was keen when I asked him to re-do something so I could get a better shot. Bill’s full 3 hour interview experience at the end of the week went very well (the frequent interruptions for a rain shower notwithstanding) and he provided our project with countless valuable insights. Suffice it to say we have gleaned some amazing wisdom from our various Outsiders participants to-date and we can’t wait to put the work together into a entertaining and informative piece! Keep your eyes on this space over the coming weeks 🙂
You can view a full photo gallery from the trip on our Flickr PNG photostream.