October 1, 2001

Playback: Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson's Black Harvest

From 'Black Harvest', by Australian filmmakers Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson.

I came to Maysles Films in the early 1970's—fresh out of college—and I never left. So I guess you could say that, professionally, I'm a child of cinéma vérité, and I continue to live for the vérité style and to be challenged by it regularly.

At Maysles, we approach vérité films in ways that are more literary than journalistic. We seek out real-life stories that will unfold dramatically on screen and, like good literature, reveal deeper truths about the human condition. Finding those subjects is tough, however, and having the resources to follow them for months and even years is rare. And so I found myself between long-term projects—and missing them—in 1992, when I attended the Margaret Mead Film Festival. There I saw a film that filled me with awe (and envy): Black Harvest, by Australian filmmakers Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson. In a vérité film, they had captured an epic real-life story worthy of Dickens or Tolstoi.

Black Harvest is the story of the Ganiga, an aboriginal tribe in New Guinea struggling to gain a foothold in the modern world. The film opens with a prologue. In black and white footage shot in 1930, we see the first English expedition to the mountainous interior of New Guinea. While there, the expedition leader fathers a child with a Ganiga woman that he leaves behind. That child is named Joe Leahy.

The film’s main story then begins. It’s 50 years later, and we are at a funeral for the Ganiga tribe leader. Two new leaders emerge: Popina, a tribe elder, and Joe Leahy. Through his own hard work and the begrudging aid of a white uncle, Joe has become a wealthy coffee plantation owner. He and Popina want to improve conditions for their impoverished tribe by starting a new coffee plantation. They enlist the cooperation of tribe members by promising great returns once the harvest matures and is sold. But five years later, when the first crop is almost ready to be picked, international coffee prices plummet. Feeling betrayed and angry, tribe members choose to engage in battle with a neighboring tribe rather than harvest coffee, which puts the entire enterprise at risk. What a narrative—and the film is just beginning!

I was exhilarated watching Black Harvest. For me, it was cinéma vérité at its best: a real life story with all the ingredients of great literature: hope, ambition, friendship, greed, betrayal, and war, played out against a backdrop of colonialism and modernization. As the old vérité cliché goes, if Robin and Bob had scripted it, nobody would have believed it. Instead, they worked as a two-person crew, developed an extraordinary trust with their subjects, and sweated out the ups and downs of an ever-changing storyline. In doing so, they captured scenes rich with character, dialogue, and action. I left the screening feeling a renewed commitment to the unique power of cinéma vérité. The stories are hard to find and challenging to film, but when the elements come together—and the drama of real life plays out on screen—no Hollywood fiction can match it.

 

Susan Froemke is a four-time Emmy Award-winner whose credits range from Grey Gardens (1976) to LaLee’s Kin: The Legacy of Cotton (2001).

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