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Homecoming documentary puts Pukapuka on the map

Tuesday October 27, 2015 Written by Published in Weekend
Low-lying Pukapuka was a welcome sight after five days at sea. 15100711 Low-lying Pukapuka was a welcome sight after five days at sea. 15100711

An internationally-renowned documentary crew has finished 46 days of production in Rarotonga, Pukapuka, Aotearoa, and Hawaii.


This feature-length documentary “Homecoming: A film about Pukapuka,” explores environmental and social issues through two women writers and friends: Former Rarotonga resident Johnny Frisbie, a Pukapukan-American writer’s daughter, and Amelia Borofsky, an American anthropologist’s daughter.

With over 150 hours of footage, 70 interviews, and thousands of photos, this marks the first documentary of this kind for the Cooks. Transport in and out of Pukapuka made a documentary of this scale and calibre a challenge, but the support of countless helping hands, the fearless crew and cast pulled it off.

With the support of the Office of the Prime Minister, the six-person crew travelled with the Te Maeve Nui tere party aboard the MV Lady Naomi. Johnny Frisbie, a regular sea traveller throughout her childhood, enjoyed the five-day boat ride and sat on deck with binoculars looking for Kotawa (frigate birds).

Everyone onboard smelled orange peels to deal with the smell of diesel fumes. Along with many in the tere party, the documentary crew faced seasickness and the flu/pneumonia epidemic. Nurse practitioner Manongi Tiro said, “in the two weeks since the tere party returned, we saw 380 people (out of a total population of 450) at the hospital.”

After five days at sea and despite suffering from the flu, the documentary crew and movie characters received the greatest homecoming imaginable. Entering Pukapuka on a barge through the turquoise lagoon, kai kais, speeches, eis, hugs, tears, and flying fish heralded their arrival.

Led by director/producer, Gemma Cubero del Barrio, the team worked 12-hour days for a month in the heat of Pukapuka, resting only on Sundays. Wheelbarrows carried equipment around and everyone wanted to participate in the documentary.

As veteran sound recordist Ray Day said in a speech, “I have travelled to 53 countries and I never before have received a warmer nor more enthusiastic welcome than here in Pukapuka.”

Director of photography Vicente Franco agreed. “My camera had never received so much love,” he said. Everyone on the atoll sang and danced and played their hearts out for the film.

The island council hosted two days of traditional Christmas sports for the documentary crew. Sports on show included coconut-husking, lele ipu (running with coconut shell on head), toto (stick throwing), popoko (wrestling), and volleyball. Lots of chanting and taunting ensued.  Amelia “Ame” and Johnny “Mama Tiane” loved participating in it all.

The island council, Johnny’s family, Amelia’s family, the Kau Wo Wolo, the CICC church, and the SDA church all hosted the documentary crew with many feasts. They also stayed at Motu Ko and Motu Kotawa hunting coconut crabs, catching birds, and fishing.

As documentary character Amelia Borofsky said, “We got wined, dined, and spoiled. Everyone wanted to show off the strength, spirituality, singing, and food of Pukapuka.” Amelia especially marvelled at the solar power project installed since her visit last year.

Two composers, Poila Poila and Loly Paulo, even wrote an original song for the documentary. The poetic Pukapukan lyrics tell of a journey back home to the land embodying the main themes of the documentary.

“The hospital, the churches, and the school all hosted us for day-long shoots,” said Borofsky.

 “The kids especially loved the attention and the camera.”

For documentary character Johnny Frisibie, the reunion brought many tears with a visit to her mother’s grave and a swim at his childhood home on Matauea Point.

Johnny, “Mama Tiane,” also had much joy weaving baskets again, tickling the small crabs on their stomachs, collecting shells, hunting for coconut crabs, and catching up with old friends and family.

For everyone involved, the journey became a powerfully emotional one. In a farewell

speech Cubero del Barrio said: “Pukapuka is such a civilised, well-organised, and spiritual place. This documentary will capture that strength and beauty.”

In a bittersweet goodbye, Air Rarotonga generously helped sponsor one-way of the charter to pick up the crew from the newly-compacted sand runway on Motu Ko. Everyone asked, “When can we watch the film?”

When the crew left Rarotonga, immigration officers even asked, “How did the documentary go?”

“Projects of this nature usually take five to seven years,” said Borofsky. “The team still needs to fundraise in order to edit, mix, and distribute the film.”

Gabby Fa’auiso took thousands of gorgeous photos of the production in Rarotonga, Pukapuka, Aotearoa, and Hawai’i. These will be uploaded on to our Facebook page “Homecoming: A Film About Pukapuka” where people can continue to follow the progress of the film. Donations, contacts, questions, and comments are also always welcome via www.talcualfilms.com.

The Homecoming: A Film About Pukapuka crew and characters would like to thank the many helping hands that made this all possible. The production trip was funded by a highly successful Kickstarter campaign with donations from 289 backers from 22 countries, private funders and institutions such as La Fetra Foudation and Pacific Islanders in Communications.

In particular the team would like to thank in Rarotonga and Pukapuka: Kanoe and Rudy Aquino of Tropical Sands for generously hosting everyone at their sweet bungalows, Kelly Pick and Brendan Heath of Are Mango, Maurice “Mo” Newport of Motone Productions for making life easier, Elizabeth Koteka for coordinating transport, Sonny Williams for the Te Maeve Nui celebrations and tickets, Jane Wichman at CITC for cargo assistance, the Baha’i Community, Ani, Croc, Moko, and Crusty for incredible TATAU, Kay George for beautiful t-shirts, Neil Dearlove for coffee, the KWAI, the MV Lady Naomi, Ewan Smith and Bubs at Air Rarotonga, the Island Council of Pukapuka and Nassau, the Kau Wo Wolo, the Pukapuka Sports Committee, Niua School, Pukapuka Hospital, Manongi Tiro for much needed health care, Iotama Lavalua for motorboat adventures, Pati and Pio Lavalua for their generous monetary donation, and to all the family and friends who donated food, time, and laughter.

Cubero del Barrio would especially like to thank the over 70 people she interviewed, from nine year-old Ketula Katoa to 86 year old Papa Charlie Frisbie.

“Above all, the team would like to thank the people of Pukapuka both at home and abroad. Atawai Wolo Kotou,” Borofsky said.


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1 comment

  • Comment Link Barbara Radford Saturday, 25 January 2020 10:43 posted by Barbara Radford

    We spent 3 weeks on Raratonga in 2002 and had a lovely time with Johnny Frisbie
    And her Grandchildren , Sophia and Tevanna .
    We understand she now lives in Honalulu . We are headed to Honalulu in April
    And would love to contact Johnny . Is there any way you can help us contact her.
    Paul. Barbara, Lauren and Samantha Radford . She was house sitting Dr. Tom Davies
    House at the time . So many fond memories of a wonderful Lady.

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