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samedi 25 janvier 2014

Polynesian dream in cinemascope

Lagoons and coconut in 24 frames per second

While the film has existed for two centuries, the French Polynesia, as isolated as it is, has inspired many stories immortalized on film.

The first footages, shot in Polynesia would be Gaston Méliès’s work (the brother of extremely famous Georges Méliès). Sixty years old, he embarked on a long journey in the South Seas during which he made very numerous movies. He couldn’t find for them none buyer on his return.

Tahiti or a joy of life : 1957
It was during this trip that he would have shot in Polynesia an entitled movie: “Ballad of the South Seas”. Alas: this film got lost without trace (body and property)…! Don’t have too many regrets: it’s not at all certain that it was made in Tahiti. In fact, even the Gaston Méliès’s arrival on our islands is unreliable.

The real Polynesian history of the cinema of fiction would thus have begun, with certainty this time, in 1927 with Robert Flaherty and W.S.Dyke’s movie: “White shadows of the South Seas”, better known under the title “In the South Seas”; it will become “Ombres blanches (White shadows)” in French Version.

During the filming of Tabu
The same Flaherty will sign with Friedrich Murnau the scenario of “Tabu”, shot at Bora Bora, two years later.

Fiction and documentary
Just like for the painting or the literature, our islands have always been an inexhaustible source of inspiration for the filmmakers. The Polynesian myth is always so powerful for the most part of the Western artists, but the opening of the airport of Tahiti allowed a significant increase of the film shootings. The interest of the televisions of the whole world for our landscapes, the marvels of transparent waters of our lagoons or the mysteries of the Polynesian civilizations considerably have multiplied the number of these shootings. To the point that local producers found place on this market and so they supply, besides the both local television channels, programs of the whole world. Today, the professionals of this sector federated to be able to negotiate with the authorities a real recognition and financial supports comparable to those existing in mainland France.

The most famous movie with Marlon Brando
The same doesn’t go for the movies of fiction. For eighty years, about twenty movies only were realized in the fenua. For that, there are several reasons. The first one is bound to the story of the cinema: till the beginning of the sixties, almost all the movies were shot in studio. Then, the film pellicle was an extremely fragile format and number of reels arrived into laboratories, destroyed or damaged while film teams went back home. It was thus impossible to shoot again the concerned sequences. Finally, considering the slowness and the cost of the journeys the shooting is much less expensive in studio. Today still, the film shooting in Polynesia costs a lot.

For all these reasons, number of productions were (and are always) realized on other less isolated islands, for example in the Caribbean. The intrusion of the IT tool in the cinema enables to use sequences already shot as film set. This particularly economic method is more and more often used for obvious reasons of profitability. So, if the Polynesia was used as backdrops to numerous productions, few of these images were actually shot on the spot.

Myth and reality
If our islands were often used as frame of movies to numerous sentimental or adventure fictions, the myth of the “heaven on earth” isn’t foreign to it. But the use which the filmmakers of the whole world made with only strengthened the myth. So, feeding on itself, it continues to increase, using the cinema as a powerful amplifier. Then, these images of the Polynesia doubtless constitute the most effective and the least expensive of the promotions for our islands.

Photo of film set, during the shooting of “Tahiti, the joy of life”
On the other hand, the shooting of a full-length film represents a not insignificant financial contribution in the local economy, in a direct and indirect way.

To-morrow on our screens…
More and more passionate Polynesian young people are working with these professionals, come moreover, and they discover their jobs. They are the same young people who, just like the very promising Erwin Lee, are going to make film studies in Europe, in United States or in Australia to become technicians, directors, cameramen… We can thus dream that a next day , a fiction of full-length film, written, interpreted and realized  by Polynesians, displays in the movie theaters of the fenua and moreover.

The last full-length film shot in Polynesia, although it’s supposed to take place in New-Caledonia
The last full-length film shot in Polynesia, although it’s supposed to take place in New Caledonia.

In the meantime, the film activity remains one of the hopes of the economic development of the Polynesia: it’s about fictions or about documentaries and the local productions is more and more numerous. Events as the International Festival of Oceanian Film (FIFO) are to show us the dynamism of this budding sector.

An article of Julien Gué
Translated from French by Monak

Copyright Julien Gué. Ask for the author’s agreement before any reproduction of the text or the images on Internet or traditional press.
- First catalog of the ethnographical movies about the region of the Pacific, Jean Rouch’s introduction, Unesco 1970.
- Bernard Rapp, world dictionary of movies, Larousse, 1995
- All the images which illustrate this article come from collection of the Institute of the Audiovisual Communication (ICA)
My special thanks to Eric Bourgeois and Marc Louvat de l’ICA for their so precious help: www.ica.pf/, www.cinematamua.canalblog.com/

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