JOE LEAHY'S NEIGHBOURS

Australia

1988

Directors / Producers: Robin Anderson & Bob Connolly
Production Co.: Arundel Productions
Associate Producer: Chris Owen
Cinematography: Bob Connolly
Sound: Robin Anderson
Editors: Ray Thomas & Bob Connolly
Sound Editor: Ray Thomas
Translator: Ganiga Tomas Taim
Joe Leahy
Popina Mai
Tumul
Joseph Madang
et al.
90 minutes
16 mm
Colour
English & Temboka, with English subtitles
GA Certificate
Grand Prix, Cinema du Réel, Paris 1989
 
Documentary is a hopelessly inadequate word to describe Joe Leahy's Neighbours. This wonderful film has the dramatic strength of a first-class feature. It is an anthropological tragi-comedy full of conflicts amongst fascinating characters. It is also a psychological thriller about collectivism vs. capitalism, about 'primitive' ways vs. 'sophisticated' ones, that regularly seems about to erupt into violence, possibly murder. And, like all great stories, it keeps you itching to know what happens next...
The drama is unfolded, over 90 minutes, with some interviews, but mainly in confrontations between the characters, against a background of day-to-day activities - funerals, farm work, trips to town to buy clothes. Without any travelogue heaviness, we are drawn into the place and its customs and tactfully given close-ups of private and public lives. Joe remains an enigmatic or ambiguous figure, consistently intiguing as a man of two worlds, but leaving nearly everything we see him do open to question about motives. The mixture of comedy and tragedy comes from the portraits of men trapped by, or profiting from, their own vanity, deviousness and greed or frustrated in their hopes of finding a path between loyalty to ancient ways and the need to come to terms with the business values introduced by Europeans and fine-tuned by the mixed-race Joe.
- Ned Jillett, The Age, 3/5/89
 
Joe Leahy lives in a house of suburban comfort, spending his evenings watching Australian television with the help of a satellite dish. He is a shrewd businessman whose plantation grows and prospers while nearby tribespeople remain unblessed by his prosperity, except, perhaps at certain moments, such as the death of one of the tribe's elders, when Joe is there to pass out gifts of money. The theme here is an old one: tradition vs. modernity, the disappearance of the old ways that cannot survive the onslaught of the new. The tribe tries to cling to its customs, even as its members wear Australian military camouflage caps and T-shirts emblazoned with logos of rock groups like Iron Maiden. They pay bride prices, they chant at funerals, they even prepare for war with shields and spears when one of their members is wounded by a gunman from another tribe, though they change their plans when the man recovers. At the same time, the tribe perceives that Joe's modern ways, as practised on land they practically gave him, has brought him a better life... Joe, who has an ambiguously paternalistic attitude toward the tribe, tries to convince them that times have changed. "Business," he says, "that's how you raise up your name now. Killing and raping won't do anymore." In short, a revolution has occurred. Adapt or die is the message. But it is a message delivered with grace and understanding by Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson, who never blame, never explain too much. They have the good sense to allow their characters to express themselves in all of their confused truculence, so they emerge neither as heroes nor villains but as wounded humans struggling to prosper and to understand.
- Richard Bernstein, The New York Times, 1/4/89
 
Capitalist, feudal, tribal, and slave economics all appear to be in operation here. The Ganigas' interdependence with Leahy and simultaneous facility at cutting through his rhetoric to assert that they've been cheated create a riveting drama. The tribe's media awareness spotlights the changing role of ethnographic film in a world where there are no more cultures unversed in Western ways.
- Lisa Kernan, San Francisco Film Festival Programme 1989
 
The elusiveness of full understanding underlines the film's complexity and refusal to subordinate the situation to a unitary political narrative or anthropological generalities. Some viewers may look for an account of colonial villainy, and the facts of inequality are inescapable, but the complicity of some local people and the lack of obvious solutions should be equally apparent. Nor does the density preclude appreciation at a more general level, since the basic themes are indeed stark. So neither intricacy nor accessibility are compromised. There is concentrated engagement with people and their statements to the exclusion of the travelogue style into which some ethnographic documentaries lapse. These conversations convey as much as one could pretend to know of the meanings and politics of a very tangled situation; one which is locally crucial, but with much wider implications for other histories. These are the achievements of Joe Leahy's Neighbours.
- Nicholas Thomas, Cinema Papers, 7/89
 
We have long been interested in the relationship between Joe Leahy and his Ganiga neighbours, seeing there an ideal opportunity to look at the progress of cultural change in this dynamic and populous region, so recently introduced into the main stream of 20th-century life. But while this is at the thematic heart we were anxious that the film have a strong narrative element, and were convinced that the one sure way to achieve this in an observational, non-fiction film was to observe events over the longest possible period of time. Hence our eighteen months in the highlands and the forty hours of material we obtained. We intended to make one film and made something completely different.
The clash between Joe and the Ganiga can't simply be analysed by dubbing Joe the villain and the Ganiga the innocent victims of neo-colonial exploitation. This is a clash between entirely different and mutually antagonistic views of how people should conduct themselves and their affairs. Despite there being no question that Joe legally bought the land to establish his plantation, the Ganiga don't really believe they have parted with it. Melanesians don't regard land as a commodity to be bought and sold like shoes or a car. To sell land is to sell your own child.
- Robin Anderson & Bob Connolly
 
One of our most important single decisions was where to build our grass hut. It was fraught with political consequences. The wrong decision would have been fatal to the enterprise.
- Robin Anderson & Bob Connolly