Producing a Community Soap Opera Series from the Eastern Highlands of Papua New Guinea

In our presentation we will focus on collaborative aspects in the development and making of the series “A Slice of Life” – a collaborative film project between the community of Napamogona (PNG), the anthropologist and filmmaker Regina Knapp (D), the producer Verena Thomas (D/AUS) and the dramaturge Jackie Kauli (PNG/AUS).

By giving insights into the complexities of collaboration in the whole creation process –from script development, preparation and on-site organisation to acting and filming in and with the community and editing– we want to explore the forms, meanings and dynamics of social relationships in processes of ethnographic filmmaking. What are the motivations, expectations, aims and ambitions to realise such a project on both sides? Moreover, we want to discuss how our approach to ethnographic filmmaking can have a social impact, in this case on local peacebuilding capacities. We will discuss these questions and highlight them from different perspectives.

The idea to create a PNG “grassroots-telenovela” has grown from long-term cooperation. During a time span of more than twenty-five years, Regina Knapp has documented the history of the community of Napamogona and has collected a huge body of ethnographic footage that covers a wide range of topics – including tribal warfare that lasted several years and led to the destruction of the village in 2006. Only in 2012, after a ceasefire, the village was rebuilt and scattered families returned to their previous land. It was then when we watched the footage in the community and the emotional responses were strong. It triggered memories of lost dear ones, warfare and disputes, economic changes, struggles and joys and special events. When discussing the material, community members felt that they have important stories to tell – stories that stand for many communities in Papua New Guinea. We decided to script a series in a soap-opera format, based on true stories, and include scenes from the ethnographic footage into the fictionalised narrative.

With the help of Verena Thomas, media expert and producer with long-term involvement in the Pacific, and her colleague Jackie Kauli the pilot film “A Slice of Life” could be realised in August 2019. The whole community participated in the filming process. Each task was given to persons from specific clans, so that each clan became part of the filming process, if not working in front, then behind the camera. This ensured that the film production became the project of the whole community, not only of the actors and the anthropologist. The film team (camera and sound) consisted of former film students from the University of Goroka.

By merging ethnographic footage into the acted plot (or is it the other way round?) we are blending the vague borders of truth and fiction and may thus also be raising points for discussion on the topic of authenticity.

Dr. Regina Knapp

Regina Knapp is a German anthropologist and filmmaker with extensive research and filming experience in Papua New Guinea, her country of birth. She acquired her PhD in anthropology at the Australian National University in 2011 and worked as a visual anthropologist for the Max-Planck-Institute in Leipzig (Project: Documentation of Endangered Languages), the University of Jena and the State Museums Berlin. In 2020 she was  awarded the Wenner-Gren FEIJOS-Postdoctoral fellowship for the completion of her current film Voices of Kula. Currently, Regina Knapp is Curator for Visual Anthropology, Media-Department, Ethnologisches Museum und Museum für Asiatische Kunst, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.

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