Documenting the expedition: Reflections of a filmmaker

FIU filmmaker recounts challenges and rewards of a field assignment in one of the most remote corners of the world.

Two days until we leave and I’m tearing apart my garage trying to find my old inverter. It’s about the size of a small hard drive and I haven’t seen the thing in I don’t know how many years, at least since Hurricane Wilma knocked out the power and I had to use it to run my laptop and modem.

Tim PabloIn less than 48 hours I’ll be on a plane (six planes, actually) to the other side of the world. I’m going to lead a small documentary film crew (that would be me and Honors College student Pablo Currea) heading into the jungle of Papua New Guinea for the next 12 days. The plan is to meet up with a village of former headhunters who are claiming to be one of the Lost Tribes of Israel. There will be 10 of us traveling together, led by FIU religious studies professor Tudor Parfitt.

The professor has been to PNG, as we are all now calling it, twice before. But it’s been 10 years since his last trip, so the details of our expedition are a bit sketchy. We don’t really know our exact itinerary or where we’ll be staying. We don’t know if it’s going to cost us $1,000 or nothing to fly from the capital Port Moresby out to the ancestral home of the Gogodala, the tribe we’re going to be filming. And this is why I’m searching the garage for my inverter. I figure, worse comes to worse out there in the wild west of PNG, someone’s got to have a car battery I can hook up to and recharge my camera batteries.

I’m so jet-lagged by the time we land in PNG, the whole arrival and the huge tribal welcome we received at the airport is just a blur. I’m certain I filmed it; I’ve got the footage on my memory cards to prove it actually happened. But I was so out of it later that night in my hotel room I somehow fried one of my battery chargers in the wall outlet.

This was not a good omen. Backup and power and backup power had been my obsession for weeks, now I was down one charger before even leaving the capital. And still, we had no solid information about our access to electricity out in the Gogodala village of Balimo. There was talk of a generator that ran part of every day. But I had no idea where we would be in relation to the generator, and how that would affect powering the cameras and the laptop and hard-drives for off-loading and backing up all of the hi-def footage we would be shooting every day.

Luckily, once we were in Balimo, we were bunked up in trailers that had intermittent generator power. At last, I was able to turn my attention to the other thing I’d been obsessing over for the last few weeks: how to transform an idea – a tribal people’s shifting cultural identity – into a set of visual images that could eventually be edited into a story.

In the village, there was no shortage of images to record. We generated a lot of excitement wherever we went. The village is in the middle of a vast floodplain with no roads to it, but more than a thousand people came out to hear the professor speak the afternoon we arrived. There was always a lot of activity surrounding us, and since nothing we were doing was scripted, we tried to record everything.

8614221130_85afd0b0d7_b (1)I was always running and hunting, trying to stay ahead of the action. I’d disembark from a plane, hop off the back of a pickup truck, jump out of a boat as we beached, and then have to run up ahead to frame a shot. I’d point my camera at the professor, then at the tribespeople. Sometimes I’d have to just keep the camera on as I followed the action, talking to myself the whole time:Hold the shot. Count to 10. Move on to the next shot. Count to 10. Capture different angles. Where’s the emotion? Capture what’s happening and then the reaction to what’s happening.

And then I’d catch myself wondering, What is happening?

We were pursuing a story that revealed itself slowly. First in the huge events staged for our benefit and then, as I learned to look more carefully, in the elusive moments of beauty I witnessed in the lives of the tribal people who were our hosts.

Just as it seemed to be getting a little easier, it was over. On the long trip home, I felt like I’d just rafted the rapids of a big, white-water river. Like I’d been swept up into a current and went with it for all those days. It wasn’t until I was home poring over the footage in my editing cave, until I was bleary-eyed, that I could see that, yes, we’d done it. On my monitor I watched Gogodala fathers carefully placing yarmulkes on their sons’ heads, half-naked men in grass skirts chanting beneath an Israeli flag flapping in the wind, women telling the story of the tribe’s long-ago exodus from Israel in dance and song. I could never have imagined these images before; now they were flickering in front of me; a living artifact, stored (and backed up multiple times) on computer hard drives. Safe now. I could put away my old inverter.

— Tim Long


More from our feature on Papua New Guinea:

Read more about Professor Tudor Parfitt’s research on the Lost Tribes of Israel. >

Watch a mini-documentary of the research. >

Hear from the students who accompanied Parfitt to Papua New Guinea. >

Explore a map of possible Lost Tribes of Israel around the world. >

See a slideshow of Gogodala art and culture. >

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