In 1981 I found myself in the middle of a jungle, on the Island of Viti Levu, the main island in Fiji, with a video camera on my shoulder.
I had left my job in England as a graphic designer to take up a position in the University of the South Pacific as Program Officer Graphic.
This entailed establishing design and photographic facilities for material to be produced in distance education programs, including assisting with video productions. One of my first roles was to be a cameraman on a film about the making of a bamboo Bilibili.
The Bilibili was a traditional craft for the Fijians, which was in danger of being replaced by the outboard motor and punt. So the task in hand was to record the details of design and construction of the bamboo rafts while there were still Fijians who knew how to make them.
“HMS no come back” was the nick name of the bamboo rafts that were made to bring traditional root crops into town from the upper reaches of the Rewa river, which is where we started filming.
Because there was only one cameraman it was necessary to shoot scenes from various angles. This included establishing shots, medium close ups, and close ups — usually one after the other for continuity and ease of editing. But this was where the trouble began.
After the first day of filming producer Asesela Ravuvu came to us to say that the village elders who were involved in the making of the bamboo craft were not happy.
He suggested we meet in the village that evening.
Around a bowl of “grog” (or Yangona), with Asesela as translator, the issues emerged. The villagers believed they were constructing the craft according to traditional design processes, and resented being told to repeat something again and again. As the grog passed around, they explained that they were not doing it badly, they knew what they were doing and lastly, who were we to decide what was wrong with their design skills?
But how could the processes and codes of filmmaking be explained to a community that had never seen a television program or film before? Clearly there were limited ways to explain that what we were doing was no criticism of their capabilities, rather just to do with the codes of editing moving pictures.
Without Asesela as interlocutor, the mood in the grass hut — or bure — might have become even more tense, but he had realised that the technical issues could be set aside and it was better to assure the elders that we were nice people, who would like to drink some more grog. This seemed to do the trick. More bowls and more laughter lubricated the conversation.
By the end of the evening, all was well with the social aspects, and whilst the village elders had learnt a little about filmmaking, the crew, had at least learnt that drinking ceremonial grog from a coconut shell was an important part of Fijian culture.
The significance of positive cross-cultural interactions had allowed the production issues to be overcome; and the Bilibili project sailed on to become a permanent installation in the Fiji Museum, and still is to this day.