This is basically a re-run of a story I posted last year when this production was playing at Old Fitzroy. It was one of my favourite productions of the year. It is now about to open at Upstairs Belvoir. Not many shows I want to recommend without reservation – though you will probably need to book a reservation for a seat! I put it up here partly as a promo as I suspect, since its relatively recently been reviewed, it won’t get a lot of coverage in the daily press. Just wanted to get this up also before I attended to a bigger assignment – some kind of wrap/overview on Namatjira – which finishes it Belvoir run quite soon.
The Bougainville Photoplay Project:
a production by Version1.0 with Tamarama Rocksurfers.
Paul Dwyer is the show’s chief conceptualist and (almost) solo performer. Version 1.0 is one of our rare ‘cutting edge’ ensembles and two other members play vital roles. David Williams’ direction is subtle and astute; and Sean Bacon holds the fort on most matters audio-visual – quite a feature of this show.
It is usually good news when an enthusiast like myself tries to describe an experience in their field of specialty and finds stock phrases unsuitable and fresh minted terminology elusive. Perhaps we are witnessing something bold and original. Maybe even important? Here, with The Bougainville Photoplay Project, I am sure we are. Characteristically I saw the last performance of this season, so I do hope it gets another run soon. It is well worth seeing – as a staged event – and for what it has to say. I should add it was refreshing (and innovative) for Verson 1.0, a rather intellectually high-brow mob, after several other incarnations of this show, to take this work to the laksa-and-beer venue that is The Old Fitzroy in East Sydney and mix it with the punks and the boozers.
Dwyer is currently Chair of the Dept of Performance Studies at University of Sydney, a theatre scholar of considerable clout and a veteran performer. His focus has been on youth and community companies; and of late Dwyer has taken a particular interest in youth justice conferencing and reconciliation. What could that have to do with theatre making, much less the civil war in Bougainville – well that’s where, I suppose, we begin. Dwyer wisely chooses in this show to work strictly within personal boundaries. He is a lecturer by trade, and so this performance takes that form. He sits at a desk, reads from documents, shows slides, some sourced video, recalls encounters that hark back to his family and childhood – which push him forward into a venture in adulthood that takes him to Bougainville.
The whole lecture format is expertly handled and has a touch of ‘piss-take’ to it: an ‘awareness’ that transforms this rather ancient of on-stage forms into one that shivers time and time again (a form of meta-theatrical ‘aside’) with ironic play. To the heart of the matter. Dwyer is interested in forms of ‘reconciliation’ and my chance he stumbled upon information that in post civil-war Bougainville, the people are reactivating traditional forms of conflict resolution. People who have not merely killed, but tortured, hacked and raped, are coming together to seek forgiveness from those they have brutalized and offended. And their requests are being formally accepted.
- Arawa Health Centre
For those with no idea about what happened on the island of Bougainville between the late 1960s and until recently, it’s hard to know where to start. Copper was found on this rugged island which sits geographically between Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. Deals were done with the landowners – well not really the landowners. Contracts were exchanged with the Big Men, but this is a society where women actually own the land. In return for the promise of employment, roads, hospitals and schools, the world’s largest copper mine was opened – which by independence in 1975 – was responsible more than 50 percent of PNG’s Gross National Product. Trouble is the local citizens were excluded form most of the job opportunities, as more easily controlled ‘redskins’ (Bougainville people are among the ‘blackest’ in the world) were brought over from the mainland. And PNG’s mainland government, which had few cultural ties with the island, forgot about the schools and hospitals, or anything else. Locals were now without the land on which they once produced crops and no other form of survival. Some decided to fight back.
The Coconut Revolution (2001)
“Bougainville, with a populations of only 160,000 has managed to close and keep closed one of the biggest mines in the world. They have held their ground for a decade with antique weapons and homemade guns. These people have taken on the biggest mining company in the world and won. Ripped from the DVD “Indigenous Resistance in New Guinea” made by Solidarity South Pacific: www.eco-action.org/ssp – respect”
That the Hawke Labor Government was complicit in the repression of this ‘freedom’ struggle is as sinful as was the Whitlam Government’s turning a blind-eye to Indonesia’s violent takeover of East Timor a decade earlier. The Australian government helped train up PNG military who attempted to recapture control the island. Australian activists running the blockade with vital medicines by speedboat from the Solomons were shot at from helicopter gunships given to PNG by the Australia government.
BRA: photo by Jan Gammage
The people took an amazingly hard line and by the late 1980s the Bougainville Revolutionary Army was born. A David and Goliath struggle ensued, which left about ten prevent of the island population dead, many injured, shocked and maimed; and the mine operation brought to its knees. The stand-off lasted many years and it has been a hugely bitter and divisive experience for the Bougainville people. Why? Because not only was this a war against PNG mainland and Australian financial and political interests: brother turned against brother. There was no way, with any number of soldiers or firepower, the PNG Defence Force was ever going to flush out the BRA from their impenetrable mountain hideouts. So, as happens when many are starving, some locals gave way to the temptation to betray.
It has taken two more decades for any semblance of peace to settle on the island, in which time whatever infrastructure there was has been decimated. Why do I know all this? Well, I have seen Dwyer’s show, which does a brilliant job in outlining the back-story to the one about reconciliation he mostly wants to tell. And also I was born on Bougainville Island, where my father was a medico through the 1950s; and so spent my earliest years growing up there. There is no shaking off the bond any of us feels for the place of our birth – and so I have followed, as closely as I have been able, the saga of Bougainville’s suffering over the past thirty-five years. With a weeping heart and a quiet fury. Dwyer’s father was also a medico, a leading Australian orthopaedic surgeon who took his skills up to Bougainville several times through the 1960s. His connection was with Catholic missionary hospitals, right up into the early years of the mine’s development – but he died before conflict broke out.
The researcher in Dwyer led him to the family attic where he found a plenitude of evidence of his father’s work on the island. Armed with evidence of his family connections, which did assist in opening ‘doors’ (from roadblocks to ex-patient’s memories), Dwyer made his way to Bougainville to find out just how the local people were going about healing. He succeeds in his mission: Dwyer actually gets to attend a reconciliation event. His vivid description of walk through darkness with a single guide, along a thin bush track that slowly grows in numbers attending as they approach the event site is engrossing. At the climax of the show, at which point director David Williams artfully shifts the lecture mode into full-blown drama, we all get to enter (in our imaginations) the circle of ritualized apology. As one villager steps up to ask forgiveness for the huge wrongs done and witnessed by many – that big sorry is accepted.
For Dwyer himself the experience is both emotionally transformative and, as a scholar, exciting. The way Dwyer has shaped this experience into a work for the stage is hugely impressive. A combo of boy’s own adventure, academic research, political act and theatre-making experiment, The Bougainville Photoplay Project does what one ultimately looks for in the making of the best art. It succeeds in realising its goals. That those ambitions are high and complex are artfully disguised (but not missed) as we are drawn into the event by Dwyer’s easy-going, self-deprecating manner. His touch is as light as his themes are serious. A powerful story – beautifully told.
For more on Version 1.0 and The Bougainville Photoplay Project go here.