Fracophone Belgian director Annick Ghijzelings tackles perhaps her most ambitious – and certainly longest – documentary film in Ma’ohi Nui, in the Heart of the Ocean My Country Lies.
At 112 minutes this poetic examination of the lasting impact of nuclear testing and colonisation on the native people of Tahiti and French Polynesia, could have benefited from tighter editing and firmer framing.
Ghijzelings weaves the story of three decades of French atomic bomb testing in the atolls of the Polynesian archipelago – when 193 nuclear devices were exploded above and below ground between 1966 and 1996 – with the destructive impact on the people and culture of those who live there.
«Our land is polluted, our land is poisoned.» – Tahiti native
Held together with a poetic narrative in both French and Tahitian languages that weaves history, myth and creation stories set to entrancing images of nocturnal boat journeys, tattered huts in an airport-side shanty town, and long shots of expressively silent locals, the film also tells the contemporary story of precisely how the French state’s nuclear ambitions devastated these islands.
As is often the case with films written, directed, photographed and edited by one filmmaker, Ghijzelings’ obvious love for her subject and material means she is loathe to tighten the film’s focus and length.
Death from radiation
The film opens with compelling voices and then images addressing the first nuclear test on July 2, 1966 – when a massive mushroom cloud erupted over the Morurora atoll, –leaving the fragile rocky rim and interior lagoon dangerously radioactive to this day.
Voices of narrators unseen (it is unclear to what degree accompanying images of local men, women and children silently looking into the camera or out to the horizon are directly related to the voiceover) speaks of the naivety of those early days, when the nuclear test programme brought work and hitherto unknown prosperity to the, as the natives call themselves.
«We have no more voices, we have no more memories, we have no history. And what is a people without history, without language, without land? Well, it does not exist.» – Tahiti native
«It was like being born into a world that we couldn’t understand. We did not immediately understand that it was a danger, that it would destroy us. We were so joyful, all the money that could be earned. All the things we had never seen, which were coming to us.»
With inflated earnings meaning a worker could earn three months’ wages in a week, the Ma’ohi abandoned farming and fishing and accepted official assurances that the nuclear tests would only bring benefits.
But the dead fish littering beaches and the sickness and death from radiation poisoning that swiftly followed for natives who had been exposed to the bomb from as close as just 15 kilometres, ate like acid through the naivety.
«We know there is waste still out there… the waste is fixed for hundreds of thousands of years underground,» another unseen commentator says. «Our land is polluted, our land is poisoned.»
«And now that it is all over, what can we do? We no longer have production; we no longer know how to live by our own means. We no longer know how to climb a coconut tree… how to fish.»
«The bomb destroyed our way of life, our way of thinking.»
Slipping back and forth between commentary from the unseen witnesses and the philosophical musings sometimes in the local language, sometimes in French, Heart of the Ocean poses a key question: «Our whole people died without words, as in a silent film, because others speak in their place. We have no more voices, we have no more memories, we have no history. And what is a people without history, without language, without land? Well, it does not exist.»
Fighting for self-determination
The director brings us back to a contemporary political line by tracing the key points in the recent drive for self-determination and a back-to-the-land movement that includes a sequence using cadastral archives in Pape’ete as a backdrop to explaining the late 19th century French edict that paved the way for a widespread land grab from natives.
From the creation of a suburban market garden on a patch of rocky, rubbish strewn ground a few metres from the airport perimeter fence, to a man returning to his grandfather’s now heavily overgrown farmland to resume agriculture «while the elders are still alive» – who know how to plant banana trees, taro and other native species – Ghijzelings seeks to conclude on a positive point. She has chosen to leave to the end of the film one of the most impressive scenes: a nocturnal native dance by grass-skirt clad locals against a backdrop of Pape’ete’s dockyard freight terminal.
With a hauntingly beautiful original score by Herman Martin and the moving, poetic narration by Flora Devatine, Heart of the Ocean, which had its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival and is now doing the rounds of the international festival circuit, looks set to become a key reference point for years to come.