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Robin Anderson and Bob Connolly's 'Black Harvest'

By Steven Ascher

From Black Harvest

By Steven Ascher and Jeanne Jordan

We do many different types of projects and don't think of ourselves as having a single filmmaking style. But in our feature documentaries, we're drawn to stories with a personal connection and a political aspect, focusing on individual lives that illuminate universal truths. We're fascinated by the power of time as a narrative element, and we think humor is essential.

For these reasons, Black Harvest, the third film made by Robin Anderson and Bob Connolly in the Highlands of Papua, New Guinea, is an inspiration. It's a model of brilliant filmmaking and deep commitment. Audiences experience an astonishing world and an adrenaline-filled storyline that's continually surprising, yet as deterministic as Greek tragedy. The film poses profound questions--often wordlessly--about colonialism, capitalism and fundamental human nature.

In 1933, the Highland tribes first experienced "civilization" in the form of a white mining expedition, chronicled in Anderson and Connolly's First Contact. The central character of their sequel, Black Harvest, is Joe Leahy, the son of expedition leader Michael Leahy and a Highland tribal woman. As a mixed-race boy, Joe straddled two worlds and was embraced by neither. As an adult, he started a coffee plantation and became rich. Black Harvest begins as he starts a second plantation, but this time, instead of keeping all the profits, he offers to split 60/40 with Ganiga tribespeople who do the field work. In a terse bit of narration, which captures the factual but wonderfully wry tone of the film, we learn that "60 percent would go to Joe, and 40 percent to the 500 Ganiga."

Is Joe exploiting the Ganiga? Or is he an entrepreneur who, as he sees it, deserves the largest share for creating jobs and risking the bank loan? Popina Mai, a deep-hearted tribal leader, stakes his position on supporting Joe and the chance to enrich his people. In one satisfying cut, the film transports us five years through time to the first harvest, to see if the gamble will pay off. But calamity strikes: world coffee prices plummet, dashing any hope of profit. At the same time, the Ganiga, caught between their ancient selves and modernity, engage in a tribal war with spears and arrows flying--even past the camera. Workers abandon the plantation and the beans turn black on the vine.

Squeezed by fate, economics and two cultures that don't want him, Joe says, "I've become the meat in the sandwich." After months of war, he gives up in despair and tries to emigrate to Australia. In a heartbreaking scene, he asks his nearly deaf uncle to attest to the fact that Michael Leahy fathered him, but never met him. "Things are coming to an end," Joe weeps. "You're giving me away now." Popina Mai, grieving for his shattered hopes, the ruined plantation and being abandoned by Joe, is struck with an arrow.

Black Harvest is a dream of what documentary filmmaking can be--compelling, complex, multi-layered and more powerful than any fiction. The filmmakers' skillful storytelling and raw courage elevate it to an unforgettable epic parable.

We had the good fortune to meet Robin and Bob in Australia, and to compare notes on being married filmmaking teams with kids. Robin's death from cancer in 2002 was a loss to the world. Black Harvest is a miraculous legacy.

Black Harvest is available through Filmmakers Library.


Steven Ascher and Jeanne Jordan's films include So Much So Fast and the Oscar-nominated Troublesome Creek. A new edition of Ascher's book, The Filmmaker's Handbook, will be published in July.