Bougainville – îles salomon [Bougainville – Solomon Islands] (1935/early 1970s) – dir. Patrick O’Reilly*

Musicians accompany the male initiation ceremony – ‘Bougainville’ (1935) – dir. Patrick O’Reilly

70 mins, 35mm, b&w, silent with French intertitles in the original version. At the same time, a much shorter version, of only 20 minutes and with a different title, Popoko – île sauvage, was also produced. This featured two songs and some general atmospheric effects on a soundtrack.

In the early 1970s, a restored version of the main film was released, of only 37 minutes, and with a voice-over commentary by the director.

Source : Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS). The shorter voiced-over version can be viewed on-line in the CNRS videotheque here.

Background :  this film was shot between August 1934 and February 1935 in the course of a field-trip to the North Solomons island of Bougainville. The island was then part of Australian New Guinea, but became an Autonomous Region within the republic of Papua New Guinea (PNG) after the latter became independent in 1975. Following a referendum in 2019 demonstrating an overwhelming majority in favour of Bougainville having its own independence, as of March 2021 negotiations were continuing between local leaders and the PNG government about the implementation of this result.

Both the direction of the film and the fieldwork on which it was based were carried out by Père Patrick O’Reilly, a Marist priest who had also studied at the Institut d’Ethnologie. Funding for the project was secured through Paul Rivet, Director of the Musée d’Ethnologie du Trocadéro, the predecessor of the Musée de l’Homme.

For the purposes of the film, O’Reilly took with him a Debrie Parvo with a 120m magazine and a lightweight Bell & Howell as a back-up. Initially, he was assisted by a professional operator, Pierre Berkenheim, but he appears to have shot the remainder of the footage himself.

Content : The film can be roughly subdivided into four main parts. The first part concerns life on the coast – fishing, some impressive look-out towers in the sea to observe the shoals of tuna, the making of nets and canoes, boys swimming. A tropical storm.

Towers built off the shore allow the men to spot shoals of tuna from afar.

The second part, the longest, moves to the volcanic interior of the island and shows everyday life in a typical village – girls playing musical bows, old people chewing betel, herding pigs, basket weaving, women looking after children, followed by a lengthy sequence on men making pottery smoking pipes, carving wooden statuettes and women making pots. A young woman leaves her home and a marriage feast ensues. There is an expedition to the gardens to collect yams. These are distributed and cooked in banana leaves.

The bride is washed with protective herbs before being carried to her new home.

The third part begins with a woman painting herself with white clay in memory of her late husband, which then segues into a funerary ritual, a cremation, curiously only apparently attended by women. The fourth part concerns a male initiation ceremony that takes place in the forest. This involves a ritual battle, and the appearance of some impressively large masked figures who represent the spirits who will eat the spirits of the boys so that they can become men.

A woman mourns her late husband.

In commenting later on the film, O’Reilly claimed that the film was made with the greatest respect for the subjects: no one was asked to add or take off items of clothing, no-one was asked to take off a medallion (the occasional crucifix is indeed visible), nor to add a flower to their hair (as the tropes of ‘South Seas’ films of the time required). For the ceremonies, particularly the initiation ceremony, the camera maintains a respectful distance.  O’Reilly explains that it was only possible to film the early part of the ceremony.

In general, the quality of the cinematography is excellent for the era. While the voice-over commentary – spoken in the by-then elderly voice of O’Reilly himself – certainly enriches the account, there is a certain tendency for it merely to describe what one can see on the screen anyway.

Texts : O’Reilly 1949, Rouch and Salzmann 1970, pp.264-265, 281-287, 300-302.

© 2018 Paul Henley