Move over 'Avatar'

Children embrace 3-D technology in Yakel Village.
Children embrace 3-D technology in Yakel Village.
An Otago film-maker is about to steal a march on Avatar director James Cameron, who is to make a 3-D documentary film about the threat posed to an isolated tribe by the advance of Western civilisation.

Rachael Wilson, of Wanaka, has been there, done that and hopes to have her film The 100-year-old Chief on the big 3-D screen in Dunedin before Christmas.

My advice to you is to respect each other; live in harmony with your people and nature. This is the secret to a happy life.

"This is all I have to say. I am tired now. Let me rest."

Cameraman Mike Single. Photos supplied.
Cameraman Mike Single. Photos supplied.
It does not give much of the game away to publish here the last words spoken by the star of The 100-year-old Chief.

Chief Johnson Kowia was 108 years old when he said his final piece to the camera and there is never any doubt how the 73-minute 3-D feature film will end.

This is the story of a very old man, chief of up to 200 residents of the village of Yakel on the Vanuatan island of Tanna, and his fears for the future of his people once he is gone.

It is a primitive-looking place.

There are thatched huts on bare earth surrounded by tropical jungle. There are pigs and chickens, near naked children, bare breasts and penis

sheaths - all the trappings of a village untouched by Western influence.

But, on the fringes, civilisation is imposing itself through tourism, with planes arriving daily from Tahiti, tourists arranging villagers for photos, sniffing their cooking pots and paying for dancing displays.

Rachael Wilson, of Wanaka, first encountered the village seven years ago while on the island filming its active volcano for a London-based documentary-maker.

"You walk into this wonderland almost and you can't believe in this modern day ... that this place still exists less than three and-a half hours from Auckland."

As Ms Wilson learned more about the village, it became clear to her where the threat to its future came from.

Director Rachael Wilson with tribeswomen from Yakel Village.
Director Rachael Wilson with tribeswomen from Yakel Village.
"It's actually through Westerners enticing the tribe away by promising them a happier life with money and more advantage in our Western world."

Her film is about this dilemma.

Old chief Kowia has fostered traditional customs all his life and explains in the film: "The forest provides everything we need for a good life right here.

"I want my people to keep our culture and not be tempted by a life that's not ours.

"We have no means to survive in the modern world."

Most villagers have never seen television or even heard a radio. Yet, children make aeroplanes out of wood and inspect with interest four-wheel-drives that make it up the track to the hilltop village.

"I'm going to fly in a plane one day," says a child.

"Now I'm old, they don't always listen to my advice about life," says the chief.

Ms Wilson could see the value in documenting the last days of chief Kowia and, potentially, the last days of the village's old way of life.

And, by using 3-D, she has gone as far as anyone can with modern technology to provide an audience with a realistic view.

The film will screen at a cultural centre on the more developed part of the island and Ms Wilson hopes it can persuade tourists not to go to the village.

"What we kind of do is say 'hey, listen tourist! These guys don't have the means to compete in our world. They don't have the education. They don't have the money. But let's give them a crack at this very pivotal time in their history.'

"Let's give them a crack at just doing what the old chief wanted them to do - what the people want to do - to keep their culture and custom intact and really block out the outside world.

"[The film] could be quirky enough, it could be different enough and it could be immersive enough for that audience hungering for a Disneyland experience.

"It could be a technique we could use to convince people that actually we have seen enough. We feel we have been there. We don't actually need to go there.

"I realise it's a big ask. We can give it our best nudge. It may convince people."

Ms Wilson's film is being released at the same time James Cameron is beginning a similar project - filming the dilemma faced by a tribe threatened by a new hydro-electric scheme.

In his case, it is the Xikrin-Kayapo tribe that lives along the Xingu River in Brazil.

"It's fantastic press for us that James Cameron is making a big noise about disappearing tribes. Fantastic," says Ms Wilson.

"People who have seen our film ... have likened it to Avatar ... the real Avatar.

"We saw the parallels ourselves when we started shooting it."

The difference is that Mr Cameron will have big-budget backing from the major film studios while the tiny Otago team has funded their movie entirely by themselves.

The team consists of Ms Wilson as director/producer, Emmy award-winning cinematographer Michael Single and Dunedin's Video Factory - with assistance from Taylormade and Animation Research Ltd.

Ms Wilson said she did not know what the budget was and "I'm not even that prepared to look".

Not only does shooting 3-D require two cameras instead of one, there are all sorts of post-production issues to resolve that have required specific software to be written so the film can be played in cinemas or on television.

Ms Wilson: "The major players, the big studios in the world are only just cracking this. We've got that cracked in Dunedin."

She believes The 100-year-old Chief is New Zealand's first feature-length 3-D film.

It has been completed without any outside funding from the likes of the Film Commission.

"We haven't spoken to another soul about it until we basically spoke to you guys.

"We've kept it very under wraps for no good reason other than we just wanted to beetle on and do a really styley job.

"And when we are ready, we will put it out."

With Discovery about to start a 24-hour 3-D channel for the million Americans with 3-D televisions, suddenly anyone who can show they've "cracked it" and have something worthwhile to sell has the big boys banging on their door.

The Dunedin team sent a five-minute promo to Discovery.

"And we got this incredible response. `Wow, amazing' were the first two words, then `totally blown away' followed by 'can we licence it and when's it going to be ready?'.

"That's encouraging."

Despite being happy to sell The 100-year-old Chief for television use, she believes 3-D television will be a "fad".

"Would you want to see 3-D Extreme Nanny or whatever those shows are?

"I don't think it's a mainstream medium.

"I don't want to put my glasses on with my partner and watch 3-D in bed over a glass of wine. That wouldn't be that kind of romantic.

"I think it's a special experience thing; you go into a world, in a cinema."

FOOTNOTE: Despite getting a warning message from the chief that his time was almost up, family commitments in New Zealand meant Ms Wilson did not make it to the chief Kowia's funeral in October last year.

"I would have liked to have been there in person but we certainly didn't need to film it.

"We knew he was very ill but at the end of the day, we learnt this from the chief himself: 'family is the most important thing'."

Taking the chief home

The residents of Yakel village will get to see themselves on a 3-D screen due to be set up next year in a theatre next to a new cultural centre on the coast of Tanna Island.

It is an hour and a-half's walk from their inland village and Rachael Wilson says the villagers will have to dress for the occasion.

"The Government requires them to because they don't like near-naked people.

"They will be asked to put on a lava lava, a bit of a wrap, which they will do.

"But try and imagine them sitting down in that cinema ... sitting there in their next to nothings with a pair of 3-D glasses on.

"And their old chief is going to come to life again."

She says a "very careful explanation" will be given before the screening.

"We don't want fainting ladies when the old chief appears in glorious 3-D."

It is hoped the world premier of The 100-year-old Chief. will be held in a 3-D theatre in Dunedin before Christmas.



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