By Josephine Latu: Pacific Media Centre
Award-winning filmmaker Verena Thomas hopes to give something back to the Papua New Guinean people who had welcomed her five years ago while filming a documentary in the Simbu* highlands.
Thomas, currently enrolled in a doctorate programme at the University of Technology, Sydney, is completing a pilot project to train Papua New Guineans through participatory filmmaking.
She spoke at New Zealand's AUT University during a special screening of her 2007 documentary, Papa Bilong Chimbu, hosted by the Pacific Media Centre.
The film portrays the life of her German great-uncle, Father John Nilles, who travelled to PNG in 1937 as a Catholic missionary, and made Simbu his home for the next 54 years.
“When I showed it to the locals I saw how excited people were about video and to see themselves on screen. I felt there should be more films about Papua New Guinea,” she said.
She is now working closely with Mike Mel at the University of Goroka on a project to train new filmmakers through a participatory approach.
They expect to produce at least three short films as an outcome.
Thomas was also concerned about the negative image in the Australian media about their Melanesian neighbour.
“Australians don’t have a good idea of what Papua New Guinea is really like,” she said.
“What comes through the media is usually about Port Moresby and crime - bad things.”
Film was an “empowering” avenue for Papua New Guineans to tell their own positive stories.
Participants at the AUT screening also discussed the issue of development, highlighting the role of missionaries such as John Nilles and making comparisons to today.
“By and large, missionaries were in there for the long haul, not like some aid workers nowadays who come in for a short time, and then move on to the next job at the UN or World Bank,” said John Woodward, a member of the audience.
He had lived in Papua New Guinea with his family for seven years in the 1970s, setting up an electrical engineering department in one of the schools.
Verena Thomas added that for researchers, including filmmakers, there is a duty to consult and give back to the community being studied.
“You don’t just go in there. There are certain responsibilities you take on board when you do that,” she said.
* The film’s title uses an older version of the province’s name – Chimbu rather than the present day Simbu. Picture: Verena Thomas at the Pacific Media Centre screening. Photo: Del Abcede.