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The Highlands Trilogy *or* How I discovered 3 Ethnographic Films ♪♪♪

by Nohea
The Highlands Trilogy *or* How I discovered 3 Ethnographic Films ♪♪♪ by Nohea
I had such fun with a recent string of events that led to a film discovery. Three films to be exact. After finishing a book entitled "The Apotheosis of Captain Cook: European Mythmaking in the Pacific by Gananath Obeyesekere, I thought, how great ♥ would it be to find a film adaptation of the book! No such luck. The film exists in my mind only. Not ready to abandon the idea altogether, I continued searching for films relating to indigenous peoples and when they first came into contact with the outside world. Wow! within that phrase popped an avalanche of fascination. Unfortunately it also meant wading through a dozen articles on Science… Read more

I had such fun with a recent string of events that led to a film discovery. Three films to be exact. After finishing a book entitled "The Apotheosis of Captain Cook: European Mythmaking in the Pacific by Gananath Obeyesekere, I thought, how great ♥ would it be to find a film adaptation of the book! No such luck. The film exists in my mind only.

Not ready to abandon the idea altogether, I continued searching for films relating to indigenous peoples and when they first came into contact with the outside world. Wow! within that phrase popped an avalanche of fascination. Unfortunately it also meant wading through a dozen articles on Science Fiction films and first contact with extraterrestrials. Not what I had in mind. And then it appeared; an article entitled FIRST CONTACT~ 1st in The Highlands Trilogy by Bob Connolly & Robin Anderson ~ Papua New Guinea: The last place on earth to be discovered by Europeans. Yes! Yay! I wasn’t going to get any closer than this, to my dream of a film by Anthropologist Obeyesekere, debunking one of the most enduring myths of imperialism, civilization, and conquest—the notion that the Western civilizer is a god to savages.

No, this was no accident! Papua New Guinea is one of the most diverse countries on Earth, located in the southwestern Pacific Ocean, with over 850 indigenous languages and at least as many traditional societies, out of a population of just under 7 million. I was easily ready to abandon Captain Cook and his fateful encounter with Polynesians of the north Pacific.

Savages, myths and imperialism! I was ready for a good laugh, and what came my way was a Visual Anthropology review entitled Laughing at First Contact. It’s probably an article describing how to enjoy a blind date. Ha! Doubtful. I’ll follow up in part two of this list with details of Laughing at First Contact.

In the meantime, here are the three films I found strangely fascinating. They convey murder, innocence, irony, humor, colonialism, sex and a half white, half Papuan child born in the midst of the chaos. They are a collection of three documentaries filmed over a ten year period in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. The Highlands Trilogy has won 30 national and international awards and may be amongst the finest examples of ethnographic/historical/sociological film-making.


The Highlands Trilogy ~ Bob Connolly & Robin Anderson

In the 1930′s, the Leahy brothers encountered the hidden people of the highlands in the interior of New Guinea that was the first meeting of white and black. This documentary series features some extraordinary archival footage of both cultures and how this meeting between the two different cultures left one culture totally scarred.

Film reviews courtesy Documentary Educational Resources (DER)

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FIRST CONTACT 1st in the Trilogy (1983)

This is the classic film of cultural confrontation that is as compelling today as when it was first released over 20 years ago.

When Columbus and Cortez ventured into the New World there was no camera to record the drama of this first encounter. But, in 1930, when the Leahy brothers penetrated the interior of New Guinea in search of gold, they carried a movie camera. Thus they captured on film their unexpected confrontation with thousands of Stone Age people who had no concept of human life beyond their valleys. This amazing footage forms the basis of First Contact.

Yet there is more to this extraordinary film than the footage that was recovered. Fifty years later some of the participants are still alive and vividly recall their unique experience. The Papuans tell how they thought the white men were their ancestors, bleached by the sun and returned from the dead. They were amazed at the artifacts of 20th century life such as tin cans, phonographs and airplanes. When shown their younger, innocent selves in the found footage, they recall the darker side of their relationship with these mysterious beings with devastating weapons.

Australian Dan Leahy describes his fear at being outnumbered by primitive looking people with whom he could not speak. He felt he had to dominate them for his own survival and to continue his quest for gold. First Contact is one of those rare films that holds an audience spell-bound. Humor and pathos are combined in this classic story of colonialism, told by the people who were there.
The film is ironic, poignant, and often chilling. It’s ironic to see recent shots of the natives, once so isolated, sporting Western clothes and chuckling over old photos of themselves. It’s poignant to hear women recall being sexually “sold” to the visitors despite their fears. It’s chilling to hear the Leahy brothers matter-of-factly explain why they killed their less hospitable hosts – forgetting that, whatever the danger may have been, no invitation had been offered them in the first place. It’s a disturbing film, full of head-on challenges to colonial and racist attitudes. Yet it’s a deeply human experience, too: Its message, strongly implied if not stated, is that some kind of rapport is bound to develop in any situation, however clouded the circumstances may be by isolation, ignorance, and the urge for domination.

FIRST CONTACT 1st in the Trilogy (6 parts- the entire film)

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JOE LEAHY’S NEIGHBOURS 2nd in the Trilogy (1989)

This film is the follow up of First Contact. It traces the fortunes of Joe Leahy, the mixed-race son of Australian explorer Michael Leahy, in his uneasy relationship with his tribal neighbors. Joe built his coffee plantation on land bought from the Ganiga in the mid 1970s. European educated, raised in the highlands of Papua, freed by his mixed race from the entanglements of tribal obligation, Joe leads a Western lifestyle governed by individualism and the pursuit of affluence.

While Joe may live in Western grandeur, he is still surrounded by his subsistence level Ganiga “neighbors,” who never let him forget the original source of his prosperity. Joe spends much of his waking hours just keeping the lid on things.

Filmmakers Connolly and Anderson lived for eighteen continuous months on the edge of Joe’s plantation, in the “no man’s land” between Leahy and the Ganiga. Their lively, non-judgemental narrative eloquently captures the conflicting values of tribalism and capitalism.

“This is one of the best ethnographic movies I’ve seen. It’s set in the New Guinea highlands and focuses on Joe Leahy, a half-white, half-Ganiga owner of a coffee plantation whose role in the community is fraught with ambiguity. Is he (as some claim) a colonialist exploiter, ripping off his Ganiga brothers? Or, on the contrary, is he a new kind of tribal chief, one who brings economic development to a place badly in need of modernization? Anderson and Connolly deftly lay out the situation; but they do not tell us what to make of Leahy or his role in New Guinea. You leave the theater aware that, in its very complexity and lack of resolution, this movie reveals something profound about what’s going on in New Guinea, and many other “developing” countries." — Los Angeles Weekly

Joe Leahy’s Neighbours ~ 2nd in the Trilogy (preview only)

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BLACK HARVEST 3rd in the Trilogy (1992)

Black Harvest, the final film in the Highlands Trilogy, charts the progress of Joe Leahy in convincing the Ganiga tribespeople to join him in a coffee growing venture. He provides the money and the expertise; they supply the land and labor. But on the eve of success, the world coffee price collapses and tribal warfare erupts in the valley. Always suspect because of his mixed-race status, Joe is in deep trouble with the tribespeople when his promises of riches fail to materialize. As he organizes to emigrate with his family to Australia, he is a saddened man with an uncertain future.

“…a documentary of extraordinary historical resonance… so rich that watching it feels like taking an inspired crash course in economics and cultural anthropology.” — Stephen Holden, The New York Times* “Perhaps the best documentary of all at Sundance was the Australian Black Harvest. With the scale and richness of classical tragedy, Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson’s movie records the clash between tribalism and capitalism, the ancient and the modern, and the downfall of a man caught between two cultures. ..The audience is witness to a spectacle few fiction writers could rival.” — Newsweek “…a brilliant and utterly convincing film. As a demonstration of how a documentary should be made it will repay study a hundred years from now. I find it difficult to praise this film too highly.” — Evan Williams, The Australian

BLACK HARVEST ~ 3rd in the Trilogy (preview only)

because these films are not yet available on Mubi, I’ve added another ethnographic film in order to create the list

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