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FIRST CONTACT

Australia

1982

Directors / Producers: Robin Anderson & Bob Connolly
Associate Producer: Dick Smith
Cinematography: Tony Wilson & Dennis O'Rourke
Sound: Ian Wilson
Editors: Stewart Young & Martyn Down
Daniel Leahy
James Leahy
Isakao
Kirupano
Lusave
Dau
Meta
54 minutes
16 mm
Colour and Black & White
English and Temboka, with English subtitles
Certificate
Grand Prix, Cinema du Réel, 1983
First Contact... uses remarkable documentary footage of the initial encounters between highlands people and the prospecting Leahy brothers, but also makes effective use of oral history and contemporary perceptions. There is something spectacular about the events which no film concerned exclusively with the present could recapture...
- Nicholas Thomas, Cinema Papers, 7/89
 
It seems something of a paradox that the Leahy brothers, Michael, Daniel and James, even bothered to take a camera along with them at all. By their own admission they were hardly the types who concerned themselves with the cultural sides of exploration (or, in their case, exploitation) or with leaving any lasting records for posterity...
The Leahy brothers' meetings with these remarkable men came about after they had walked 90 miles from the coast to one of the last unexplored regions on Earth, then climbed 9000 feet into the highlands in their search for gold. Connolly and Anderson have carefully reconstructed the story by intercutting the painstakingly restored film from the Leahys' journey with interviews today with some of the thousands of highlanders for whom this was the first contact with the outside world.
The result is a compelling study of colonialism and colonialist attitudes. The filmmakers themselves have not forced the issue, but simply allowed the story to unfold in the words of those who were there at the time. And it is fascinating to watch how the beginnings of the cultural clash and confusion that marked much of Australia's later rule in Papua New Guinea were present from the very first moment of the Leahys' confrontation with the highlanders. Thus one tribesman stole a discarded tin can and used it a a head-dress. Others became fascinated by the aircraft for which they had been commandeered into building an airstrip with their bare hands.
For their part, the Leahy's intimidated the highlanders into submission with the power of the barrel of a gun. It worked temporarily, but like many aspects of Australia's history in New Guinea it was of highly dubious value. The producers of First Contact have been blessed in that the real stars of their film, the highland people, are completely uninhibited in their powers of recall and story telling. It is obvious they got much more out of encountering the Leahy brothers than the Australians got out of encountering them. Dennis O'Rourke's and Tony Wilson's photography of the highlands today is superb.
- Robert Milliken, The National Times, 3/6/83
 
In the 1930s one million people were found to be living in the centre of New Guinea. Their existence had not even been suspected by the outside world. Inhabiting a string of cool and beautiful valleys, they had been cut off completely from the rest of colonial New Guinea by hitherto impenetrable mountains. the first Europeans to enter this hidden world were Australian prospectors looking for El Dorado, like Cortez in Mexico centuries before... but Michael Leahy and his companions took a movie camera with them - and so managed to documenta on film something that will never take place on earth again: the confrontation on a large scale of one civilisation by the exploring representatives of another. After gathering dust for fifty years, these extraordinary reels of film for the basis of First Contact. In a series of tremedous journeys, Michael and Daniel Leahy encountered thousands upon thousands of people who thought their world was the only one that existed, who could therefore only assume that these white men were the spirits of their long dead relatives, come back to live among them once more. Michael Leahy is dead, but his brother Dan vividly recalls their search for gold among these stone age people: the wonderment and fear of first contact... the bloody confrontations when the white man's godlike aura wore thin, and a warlike people disputed their passage.
The highlands people are great orators and many remember well the day the spirits came over the hill - mysterious beings with devastating weapons, who could captire the moon at night and put it in their tents; who rubbed their skin off each morning in clumps of white, who searched the river with a dish looking for their own bones; who could conjure up wondrous giant birds from the sky to deliver more and more things from their bellies - who nevertheless bled the same as anyone else, and whose excreta smelt just as bad...
- Publicity notes