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Tongan Ark profiles Futa Helu and the 'Atenisi vision

Wednesday 18 Jul 2012 4:31 p.m.

Tongan Ark is a bold new feature documentary film, the first of its kind to come out of Tonga, which will have its world premiere at the 2012 New Zealand International Film Festival on August 4.

Tongan Ark is a lyrical documentary that inducts us into the surprising world of Futa Helu and his ‘Atenisi Institute, an unconventional Tongan institution that proudly stands apart from church and state.

Ancient philosophy, opera and Tongan culture entwine in this intimate portrait of a teacher, his school and his people in what is probably the world’s smallest and poorest university, built on the swampy outskirts of Nuku’alofa.

Futa fights for freedom and democracy for his country as they navigate a sea of repression and doubt in a small but troubled Pacific island kingdom.

The result of a prolonged relationship with the subjects, Tongan Ark is an independent production that has taken over 8 years to complete. The film was shot during extended journeys in Tonga at pivotal moments in the tiny nation’s history including the 2006 riots, the coronation of King George V and the transition to democracy in 2008.

The debut feature of New Zealand director Paul Janman, the film was conceived from personal experience of the teachings of Futa Helu during two years spent at his iconoclastic institute.

The idea was to avoid the common 'once over lightly' kind of documentary making and through collaboration and participation, take the culture and the ideas at the core of the film more seriously. What has emerged is something more subtle, poetic and indirect but revitalised and interventionist.

'Miracle school'

"The existence of the school itself is a miracle, in the face of opposition in Tonga, crippling financial struggle and rapid global social change that threatens to eliminate critical forms of education. Futa’s story is not fully known even in Tonga but it also has a heroic global resonance," says Janman.

"Tongan Ark doesn’t just deal with the problems of education. At a time when we are experiencing seminal events like the Arab Spring, the Greek financial crisis and mind-bending social change, ‘Atenisi and Tonga are a microcosm of humanity.

"But the film is sometimes also whimsical as it seeks a kind of sensuous immersion in metaphysical and aesthetic ideas, the modern Pacific and of course the charismatic person of Futa Helu, his family and his eccentric band of dissenters.”

An independent production from Public Films, produced, written and directed by husband and wife team, Paul and Echo Janman, through earthquakes and cyclones.

With help from Creative New Zealand and the New Zealand Film Commission, the couple has persevered to make sure this timely film was completed.

All screenings in Auckland and Wellington will be complimented with special guest performance by singers and dancers from ‘Atenisi Institute – symbolic of the fact that Tongan Ark and the film’s makers will continue to contribute to the survival of the school.

World Premiere in New Zealand International Film Festival 2012:

Auckland - Saturday, 4 August, 4.15pm at Sky City Theatre
Wellington - Friday, 10 August, 6.45pm at Paramount Theatre

Pacific Media Centre website

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