How an atoll spoke to the world

Saturday August 10, 2019 Written by Published in Weekend
Boys learn the ways of the ocean, fishing on the reef. 19080936 Boys learn the ways of the ocean, fishing on the reef. 19080936

Amelia Rachel Hokule’a Borofsky’s daughter’s umbilical cord is buried under a coconut tree on Pukapuka. She is working to tell these stories of the atoll, she says, before the seas rise and it’s too late.

On Pukapuka, with an intermittent internet connection at Niua School, tertiary programme coordinator Kolee Tinga went onto Amazon.com and ordered himself a drone camera.

The camera traveled from an Amazon warehouse to a Honolulu warehouse and then onto the cargo sailboat Kwai, which sailed two weeks to Pukapuka to deliver him his order. 

He taught himself to use it fromYoutube videos and the igenuity required of people in places without access to technological resources. He shot hours of drone footage.

He ordered himself an underwater camera next and taught himself this too. Filmmakers can come from the most unlikely of places. Everyone has a story to tell.

Far away on the plains of Castilla, Spain, Gemma Cubero del Barrio grew up and fell in love with American movies.

When our paths crossed and I told her about growing up on Pukapuka; she knew the atoll had stories to tell.

In 2017, we received a grant from the United Nations Development Programme, Global Environment Fund Small Grants Programme hosted by Red Cross Cook Islands.

We travelled to Pukapuka to run digital storytelling workshops with the Niua School students about their environment. The students composed songs about the taro patches, dances about the coconut tree, and filmed themselves laughing all the while.

Kolee and Gemma worked together and shot hours more of drone footage, waking up at dawn on a Saturday morning to shoot the women tending to and gossiping in the taro patch. I watched and wrote.

In a living room at the Los Angeles Zen Center, editor Kyung Lee and director/producer Gemma Cubero del Barrio edited the hours of drone footage selecting the best seconds.

The birds flying over Motu Kotawa, the waves lapping at the toka, and the pristine aqua lagoon all looked majestic from above.

In another living room in Lanikai, Hawaii, Gemma Cubero del Barrio, Johnny Ngatokorua Frisbie, and I looked through hundreds of pages of transcripts of interviews Gemma had done over the years with Pukapukans.

I sat before mounds of paper bouncing a child on my knee while highlighting themes related to conservation and climate change. Together we wove the words into a communal poem.

Johnny added in her poetic flair and humor. “A niu beats a glass of chardonnay any day,” she wrote in the margins.

Gemma recorded her melodic voice as she narrated the film.

Mailalo Mailalo and Kevin Salisbury translated the poem into Pukapukan.

The voices of everyone on the atoll, the film footage shot over many years, the drone, the ocean, and the hours spent on living room floors all wove together to become the short documentary Our Atoll Speaks (Ko Talatala Mai Tō Mātou Wenua).The film credits every man, woman, and child on the atoll because just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to raise a film.

I grew up on Pukapuka from 1976-1981, my formative first years. In 2011, when I returned to Pukapuka after 30 years away, I got schooled. Even though I had a doctorate, I did not know the ways of the land or sea.

“How can you be so smart yet so dumb, Ame,” said one of the mamas watching me peel taro.

Kani, only five at the time, taught me how to look for and husk uto. She laughed in glee when I almost impaled myself on the koyo (stick). I rushed to learn as much as I could about the moon and the tides. I watched and listened to the children.

Once the prickling heat of the sun dies down, the children strip out of their blue and white school uniforms. They put on tattered skirts and stained t-shirts and run off to join their mothers in the taro patch. Knee-deep in mud, they pull the weeds.

Tereni, a school teacher sits on the bank telling the children to throw the big weeds further out and to burry the smaller weeds back into the mud. The women care for the land, and in turn the land looks after us.

Iotama Lavalua takes his sons fishing. The men look after the sea and in turn the sea looks after us.

The Kau Wo Wolo, the Council of Important People, decides when to open the food reserves and sets the laws around the laui and conservation.

Kani, now 12, heads into the bush to find herself some crabs. She finds a baby coconut crab and moves it into a pandanus tree. She knows that the laui requires her to wait until it grows big and everyone can gather and share together. This elegant system of food security and conservation has sustained life on this atoll for thousands of years. During my years on Pukapuka, the taro patches, the sea, and the children became my school.

While living on Pukapuka, I met many international climate change experts and government officials who came to visit on chartered planes.They stayed for a day or two, hosted community meetings, talked to the island in English about climate change solutions, solar power, fisheries, seabed mining, and environmental concerns affecting the atoll.

Rarely, however, did they come to really listen. I never saw a group from Pukapuka/Nassau travel to Rarotonga or an international destination on a chartered plane to share their innate understanding of food security and conservation wisdom.

Those most affected by climate change are those living on low-lying atolls yet they rarely get to be at the podium offering solutions based on their own ancestral knowledge and conservation practices. Our Atoll Speaks  (Ko Talatala Mai Tō Mātou Wenua) is meant to provide that podium.

The film had its Rarotonga premiere at the Empire Theatre on Tuesday night for the opening of Te Kuki Arani Film Festival 2019.

Festival director Joshua Baker told the audience: “This is a historic moment. It marks the first time Pukapuka has been on the big screen in this way. It tells a story about a place often misunderstood and a different kind of narrative about climate change.”

The crowd marveled at the pristine turquoise blues of the lagoon. The crowd laughed watching Iotama Lavalua scale the fish with his hand and Kani and the women in the taro patch.

Everyone celebrated at Vaianaʻs and the Pukapukan Culture Group performed on the sandy beach.

Pukapukan community member Romani Katoa shared, “I look forward to more of our stories getting a voice.”

After watching the film, Kelly Rose-Pick shared, “I loved how real it was in showcasing the community. When people speak about what will happen if their wenua (umbilical chord) is submerged, that was powerful.”

My own daughter Yinale’s wenua is burried under a coconut tree on Pukapuka.

When the seas rise, her wenua will also go under the sea.

May we all listen to these stories before its too late.

·         If you missed Our Atoll Speaks (Ko Talatala Mai Tō Mātou Wenua) at Te Kuki Arani Film Festival 2019, it will show on Sunday August 11th on Cook Islands Television at 730 pm and on Wednesday August 14th at 7pm. There will also be other community screenings and opportunites school engagement. Please contact us at www.talcualfilms.com, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. if intersted in helping this film reach a wider audience.

-Amelia Rachel Hokule’a Borofsky

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