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”WE believed our dead went over there, turned white, and came back as spirits. That’s how we explained the white man: our own dead had returned.” Those are the words of a black New Guinea tribesman who had never seen a white man before 1930, when three Australian prospectors, the Leahy brothers, arrived in what they believed was an uninhabited part of the New Guinea highlands. The Leahys were not anthropolgists or serious film makers, but they happened to have brought along a movie camera in case they encountered anything of interest.
”First Contact,” produced and directed by Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson, is an astonishing record of the meeting between the Leahys and – by the film’s estimate – about a million tribesmen whose existence had been unknown to the outside world. In addition to the Leahys’ footage, which captures this clash of cultures with an un-self-consciousness that is virtually absolute, the film also includes some fascinating present-day footnotes. The two surviving Leahys, and a great many members of the tribe, are on hand to reminisce about the initial meeting and view some of the 1930 footage. Their viewpoints are no less divergent today than they were 50 years ago.
Some of the natives, who are now in more or less modern dress, remember their original perceptions of the white men in amusing detail. When they saw the prospectors’ rucksacks, for instance, ”we thought their wives must be in those bags.” The Leahys’ khaki trousers fostered another misconception: ”We thought they must not have body wastes in them because they were wrapped up so neatly.” Among their other, less benign recollections is the Leahys’ shooting a pig to show the natives what guns could do, and to discourage any would-be thieves. This is actually captured on film, as is the tribe’s first exposure to airplanes, gramophones and tin cans.
While the tribesmen remember this first brush with the white man as both miraculous and terrifying, the Leahys sound far less sensitive to the effects of their presence. ”There were hordes of them around, sing- singing all the time,” says one brother, to set the scene. And, in describing what he calls ”the native way of life,” one Leahy thinks ”they didn’t have anything better than what they have now.” The film makers clearly feel otherwise, but they don’t force the issue, nor do the tribesmen themselves. ”First Contact” has a wistfulness and humor that accompany even its most startling revelations.
On the same fine double bill at the Film Forum, in very much the same vein, is ”Trobriand Cricket,” by Jerry W. Leach and Gary Kildea. Also filmed in Papua, New Guinea, it demonstrates in rueful and often hilarious terms the ways in which the British game of cricket has been adapted by the native population and turned into a good-natured war game. The film presents songs, chants, and, when the game is rained out, one team’s suspicions that their opposition cheated by invoking weather magic.
Newcomers FIRST CONTACT, produced and directed by Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson; photography by Tony Wilson and Dennis O’Rourke; edited by Stewart Young and Martyn Down; distributed by Filmmakers Library. Running time: 54 minutes. This film has no rating. TROBRIAND CRICKET, directed by Jerry W. Leach and Gary Kildea; produced by the Office of Information, Government of Papua, New Guinea; distributed by University of California Extension Media Center. At the Film Forum, 57 Watts Street. Running time: 54 minutes. This film has no rating.