In his tribe in Papua New Guinea, wives don’t always come cheap – he had to pay forty pigs for his. But which wife has to go is just one of the dilemmas facing Ghini, as he and his tribe puzzle through Christianity.
Introducing The Gospel According to the Papuans at the Sheffield International Documentary Festival, Director Thomas Balmes said he is proud it has been called a “reverse anthropological film”. Although Westerners hardly make an appearance, the viewer learns as much about Western religion, missionary zeal and colonialism as about the Hulis tribe.
Filmed on DigiBeta, the film is a feast for the eyes, as the Hulis in full tribal dress contemplate the new set of rules facing them. When the film opens, they are well on the way to embracing Methodism, having finally succumbed after enduring a steady stream of crusading missionaries descending upon their once remote tribe. (“First we had the Methodists. Then we had the Catholics. Then we had the Seventh Day Adventists. Then we had the Evangelicals,” Ghini recalls.) As the tribe’s elder statesman, Ghini is putting his all behind the efforts and pays 17 pigs to build a church on his land. The opening of the church – celebrated by a big feast – is the occasion for the film’s best scene, as Ghini and his remaining wife tensely discuss, through tight-lipped mouths, how to ensure that the party crashers don’t eat all the food.
But the Hulis’ religious conversion is to have profound consequences on their way of life as they are required to not only give up extra wives, but also bows and arrows in an adoption of the ten commandments as their law. A follow-up to the main film one year on shows that rather than proving a temporary impulse, the Hulis’ new religion has fundamentally altered structures in the community, for good and for bad. Indeed, Balmes says that the infiltration of religion in Papua New Guinea is so widespread, that “belonging to a church is now more important than belonging to a tribe.” Like the game of telephone – in which whispered messages become more confused at each telling – the Gospel according to the Papuans is a puzzling one, as even the Papuan pastors leading the conversion have their own interpretation of scripture. (In the film’s coda, a pastor has been thrown out for committing adultery.) Engrossing, funny, thought-provoking and, above all, memorable.