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Fun(d)raising: The Secret of Tongan Comedy

Poltorak, Mike (2010) Fun(d)raising: The Secret of Tongan Comedy. Potolahi Productions Website. (KAR id:47418)

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Tonga, the only un-colonized Polynesian Kingdom, is facing uncertain times. The traditional power of local chiefs and their responsibility to the people has been progressively weakened by globalisation and the modern state. Christian churches have become the most important institutions, mediating between the constitutional monarchy and a desire for more participative democracy.

Community fundraising events demonstrate people’s love and support for their churches. One man’s comedy has helped build 24 churches and buildings over 20 years. Tevita Koloamatangi, nicknamed Tinitini, was denied his birthright to be chief in his village of Pangaimotu on the island group of Vava’u. People here are famous for their emotional volatility, warm heartedness and generosity in the eyes of their cousins on the main island, Tongatapu. As a comedian, Tinitini has created a new influential role, using his participative comedy to address current social issues to audiences in Tonga, New Zealand, Australia and the United States.

The documentary follows Tinitini on a journey around his island to meet other performers and discover the secret of their improvised parody and satire. Tinitini and his companions’ commentary and companionship offer an amusing and revelatory view of life in Vava’u. Their personal insights, motivation and courage over adversity are moving and inspiring. The comedians’ important role in Tongan society also suggests a democratic and egalitarian form of celebrity.

The film contains five original comedy sketches or skits, which deal with important dilemmas modern Tongans are facing. These include Tonga’s changing relationship with the outside world, the translation of Christian teaching, love and jealousy, marriage and wealth, the fear of ghosts, and the state of the Monarchy. This film will stimulate discussion and debate on the cultural specificity of comedy, and its role in socio-political criticism and community building.

Item Type: Visual media
Additional information: Relation to Published Research The documentary develops key themes in my published research on Tonga and my doctoral dissertation: 1) Representation of Tonga –the challenge of representation of mental illness in epistemologically accessible terms is the theme of Poltorak (2007), which advocates an attention to ethnographies of the particular and a particular engagement with interdisciplinarity: ‘Edvard Hviding has drawn interdisciplinarity into the realm of creativity and an inclusive approach that would not take intervention as a given (2003). As Hviding put it: “Approaching the diversity of Pacific worlds from an appreciation of human creativity requires an interdisciplinary inclusiveness that extends beyond academic disciplines in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences into local worldviews and indigenous epistemologies, taking these on board as partners in dialogue and collab- oration toward a plurality of knowledges” (2003, 43). His work echoes calls for Pacific anthropology to engage in epistemological dialogue (Gegeo and Watson-Gegeo 2001); to be accessible to Pacific Islanders (Hereniko 2000); and to direct research to some positive purpose (Smith 1999). Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s emphasis on utility is part of a larger project to establish indigenous methodologies as central to research. “Cultural protocols, values, and behaviour” would then become a part of a methodology based on reciprocity and leading to culturally sensitive, lin- guistically accessible dissemination (Smith 1999, 15).’ (Poltorak 2007 : 6) My film focuses in part on the creativity of comedy and social role in a way that is accessible to Pacific Islanders. As the success of my film has proved, Tongans are more likely to watch a one hour documentary than read a journal article. My film also has a claim as a public anthropological intervention and sensitive to Smith’s (1999) encouragement for research to have some positive purpose. The film is also linguistically accessible and provides an opportunity for a much wider audience, including non-Tongan speaking diasporic Tongans to appreciate Tongan comedy. 2) Eccentricity and Mental Illness. My 2007 article used the example of a famous eccentric in Tongan to engage with the diverse issues surrounding mental illness in Tonga. One of the first people to appear in the film is a famous local eccentric, who features strongly in my doctoral dissertation to explain Tongan notions of eccentricity. The documentary also focuses on one key character. So the structure of the film draws extensively on my argument that case studies are an epistemologically sensitive mode of representation of the Tongan ethnography. The focus on Tevita Koloamatangi as the central orienting character thus draws on my published research. 3) The representation and role of spirits (te?volo) One of the most popular skits that appears in the film relates to people’s fear of spirits. The protagonists in the film discuss diverse understandings of spirits, one attributing a psychological explanation while sitting on a grave in a local cementary. My framing of these discussions relate strongly to my research published in Poltorak (2007, 2010, 2011). Most particularly it follows the need to better contextualise the diverse association of the term te?volo (spirit, ghost). ‘In recognising the diversity and syncretism of healer’s practice it is also important to preserve the terms they use to describe the situations and conditions they treat. These may be understood in different ways by different healers. Translation may reify a concept or condition that might be very fluid or have the quality of both a noun and verb in use in Tongan. The term te?volo itself is a good example, given that its adverbial meaning (devilish) can be used to demonise immoral practices. As a noun, however, it describes a spirit closely resembling a human being or in biblical contexts, a devil.’ (Poltorak 2010: 9) The film contributes to a wider appreciation of the term te?volo, the diverse understandings of what they are and how the term te?volo is used to refer to eccentric characters who do inappropriate acts. Tinitini, was often referred to as a te?volo. In Samoa, one of Tonga’s closest neighbours, comedy is more strongly associated with spirits and the critical position of commentary that spirits can inhabit. See :Sinavaiana, Caroline. 1992. Traditional Comic Theatre in Samoa: A Holographic View. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.
Subjects: G Geography. Anthropology. Recreation > GN Anthropology
Divisions: Faculties > Social Sciences > School of Anthropology and Conservation
Faculties > Social Sciences > School of Anthropology and Conservation > Social and Cultural Anthropology
Faculties > Social Sciences > School of Anthropology and Conservation > Visual and Computational Anthropology
Depositing User: Mike Poltorak
Date Deposited: 27 Feb 2015 08:51 UTC
Last Modified: 22 Jan 2020 04:07 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)
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