Fejos Postdoctoral Fellowship: Gina Knapp

Wenner-Gren is proud to present the following blog post and trailer from Gina Knapp who received a Fejos Postdoctoral Fellowship to aid filming Voices of Kula.

Voices of Kula Trailer from gina knapp on Vimeo.

Voices of Kula

Fejos Postdoctoral Fellowship

Voices of Kula is a feature-length ethnographic film that tells a story of empowerment, of local responses to cultural and economic changes and of the strive to revitalize cultural heritage. A group of elders from Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea and a cooperating anthropologist set out on an intriguing journey around an island network in the South Pacific to strengthen kula, a traditional system of exchanging shell-valuables around a ‘ring’ of approximately 40 islands. Fearing the destructive impacts of cash-economy on kula practice, the team takes action to fight misconduct and the corruption of the system. I joined the group on their fascinating quest for economic and cultural autonomy.

Voices of Kula (86min) was produced from footage taken during two research expeditions around the ‘kula ring’ in Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea, in 2016 and 2018. The two expeditions were part of the research project “The value of precious objects”, that was funded by the Social Science and Humanities Research Council Canada (SSHRC) and hosted by the University of Regina, Canada. I took part in this project as external researcher, visual anthropologist and filmmaker with the main task to document the research process. The project was prepared, organized and coordinated by Dr. Susanne Kuehling, University of Regina, who has been working as an anthropologist in the region for more than twenty years. Neither the research nor the film could have been accomplished without the strong relationships Dr. Kuehling had previously built with numerous communities in Milne Bay, primarily on the islands of Dobu, Fergusson and Normanby.

The idea for the project was proposed to Dr. Kuehling already in 2012 by kula elders. They expressed their concern about a decrease in kula practice and asked for her support in organizing a trip around the ring of islands to conduct a survey of the state of kula, and to discuss the situation with the communities in the network. A few years later Dr. Kuehling had organized the funds and in January 2016 the project started in the town of Alotau on the mainland of Papua New Guinea.

Since the project was very well prepared and supported by the local kula players, I had an easy start in a research site that I had never visited before. I was familiar with filming and researching in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, but the island region was new to me. So was traveling for two months across a not always “pacific” ocean. This project opened up new horizons on professional and personal levels while at the same time posing many challenges.

We left Alotau on a very basic, chartered vessel in January 2016 for the first expedition. ‘We’ refers to a team of 16 kula players from different islands, a boat-crew of three, Dr. Kuehling and myself. We spent the following 60 days traveling on the boat from island to island, documenting as many shell-valuables as possible and holding meetings in the kula communities. In these meetings, the research team and the communities identified a number of core-problems that affect kula exchange today, among them the selling of shell-valuables, the cheating on partners, the increasing costs of hosting a kula partner and bribery in general. Most of the problems are triggered through the impact of cash economy. In one of the meetings, a player suggested that a set of binding kula-rules should be developed and written down to stop such practices. A draft was sketched, discussed and completed along the journey. To the team’s delight, even the paramount chief Pulayasi from Kiriwina (Trobriand Islands) expressed his support for the project. By the end of the first trip the team had documented more than 1.200 ‘active’ kula shells and gathered all ideas for a written ‘kula law’.

Two years later we started our second research expedition, now with a smaller group and in the other direction of the exchange circle. We revisited the island communities, equipped with laminated photos of the previously documented objects for educational workshops in local schools and large photo-posters for the village elders to have an overview of the circulating kula shell-valuables. We also brought along the written proposal of the kula rules. Kula players around the ring discussed and adjusted the document until it was finally confirmed by the island communities. A 20min clip from the last journey’s footage that I had brought along was watched with great enthusiasm by all. People around the ring reacted immensely positive and emotional to the research project and the film. In total, I collected 110 hours of footage.

Filming the two journeys was not an easy task. Light (the south pacific sun plus ocean) and sound conditions (boat engine, wind, waves) forced me often to compromise on the quality of the recordings. I was a one-person film team with occasional assistance from highly motivated and skilled, but untrained team members. Neddy Daniel was a great help and became a wonderful camera man by the end of the first trip. We used a Sony PXW-XZ150, a GoPro Camera, a Lumix and an iPhone 11plus. For sound recordings, I used two ZOOM 100 sound recorders and a SONY clip microphone.

I tried to keep as much in the background as possible when filming and refrained from interfering in meetings or conversations to get a better shot. I did not set up scenes. Before filming, we always asked – and recorded – if everyone agreed. In fact, people loved being filmed and I rather had difficulties to not-film people than to film them. Nevertheless, filming conditions at the meetings on the islands were very difficult. The numerous speakers were usually sitting widely separated from each other on the beach or a common meeting place and I sometimes had problems to adjust my camera position in time – not to mention the sound issues. The many languages spoken on the islands we visited posed another challenge. I was lucky and am grateful especially to Trevor and Synod Timoti for their ongoing translations and explanations. The cooperation with and between the team members, their motivation and support and the hospitality of the island communities we visited were overwhelming.

Voices of Kula largely follows the chronology of the research expeditions but inserts from different locations have been made to strengthen coherence in the narrative. This refers especially to meetings from different islands that have been intercut. As the name Voices of Kula suggests, I dismissed the idea of a voice-over to frame the narrative. Instead, my interlocutors reveal the story through interviews, dialogues, informal conversations and their actions. On very limited occasions I have used diagrams to illustrate a few statements. I am aware that this interrupts the inside-perspective of the film but I considered it important to summarize some points for a non-Melanesian audience. I edited the film in FinalCut Pro 10.9. Except for the title song, all music was provided by local island string bands. The title song Co era so is from the New Caledonian artist OK!Ryos. The rights have been granted by Mangrove Productions, New Caledonia.

I am now looking at submitting the film to film-festivals, for example RAI, GIEFF (German International Ethnographic Film Festival) and FIFO (Festival du Film Océanien, Tahiti). I am still researching options for distribution. Once the film has been released and screened publicly, it will be hosted online on the website of the University of Regina, Canada. Dr. Susanne Kuehling (Head of the Department of Anthropology) will arrange the upload. This online-version is important for granting free access to the film to a broad audience, specifically people in the Milne Bay region. It can be watched on mobile phones or laptops but not downloaded.