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Bougainville Sky – Canberra Film Review

Che and I went to see the world premiere of Bougainville Sky, a film about luvvies darling Fred Smith and the last three weeks of the Peace Monitoring Group in Bougainville. I should qualify that by making clear that, with the luvvies, I too am a huge fan of Fred Smith and his music. I’m guessing that the majority of the sold out audience on the night have not got pissed on gin and boogied with Fred on the dance floor of The Church for that matter

The film was by Nick Agafonnoff and, as I mentioned, the blue screen of Electric Shadows was jam-packed for the night.

Che and I had been having an odd night up to that point. We’d gone to the farewell of a good friend at the Civic Pub. An old friend I hadn’t seen in years was there and I had a most remarkable effect on her boyfriend who got spectacularly insecure in my presence (as good an ego boost as I’m likely to get).

On parking the car we noticed that the dashboard of the car in front of us was covered in Star Wars figures glued down in front of the steering wheel. The car was a BMW, anyone want to bet the owner doesn’t work in IT?

On leaving the pub we stumbled North up Lonsdale Street in search of a carry out beer to last us the walk to Electric Shadows. The site of the bottle shop we were expecting is in the process of being redeveloped. We sighted another bottle-o across the road and re-oriented ourselves, but not before a wino sitting on a bench started cackling uncontrollably at our confusion.

Re-supplied we headed back down Lonsdale taking in the spectacular unset and were distracted by the milk crates lodged in the branches of one of the median trees.

Crossing the car park behind the Section 84 construction site we saw a little blue Laser with its lights on. On inspection it turned out the back door was unlocked. Being good samaritans Che unlocked the front door, turned off the lights, loked the front door, and left the car as we found it.

And so we came to Electric Shadows at 19.40, bought our tickets (I used my 2XX discount for he very first time but only because the bloke in front of me used his and I remembered about it), shook hands with Fred as he was let into the ticket office for arcane reasons, and positioned ourselves at the front of what was soon to become a formidable cue.

In my previous life as a cinema arse-kicker in London I’d had course to work a couple of European premieres and, one special night, a World. It’s always a special occasion to even the most jaded cinema staff. Canberra gets very few world premieres indeed and, even if it was just a documentary, there was a real vibe around the evening.

The ABC had provided a slightly annoying compere (her name eludes me) for the night who made gross generalisations like “this is the story of how one man and a guitar brought peace to bougainville.

(What total, freaking, bollocks)

And then, in the time it took Andrew Pike to walk from the front of the cinema to the projection room, we had begun.

The movie itself was only shot in the last three weeks of the Peace Monitoring Group. It closes on “Cessation Day” (a nomenclature dangerously close to “Secession Day” in the context).

It follows Fred through his work on local radio, speaking to locals about the path of the peace process, and general monitoring duties.

The film does a good job of explaining how hostilities broke out around Rio Tinto’s exploitation of the Panguna mine. And it does wonders in showing the hard eyed young men of the island.

And yet, if Australia were to endure 7 years of civil war, I would wager our young men would have a hard eyed look to them too, for some time to come. If you live without law and order for any length of time you’re going to find people become reserved and hostile out of self defence.

As an insight into the nature of the people and culture of Bougainville this film is a success. As a tribute to the New Zealand Army operation that made it all work it is also accomplished.

The film only glazes over Australia’s shameful involvement in the war (as opposed to the peace process).

More problematic for me was the total absence of explanation of the terms of the peace.

As someone who has listened through Fred’s album “Bagarup Empires” many times I appreciated the art with which he tells stories from both sides of the conflict.

But if you are to document the peace that follows a war I feel you have to address what was wan and lost in the war.

We know the war started when the locals around the Panguna mine blew out a power pylon and stopped the operation of the mine in opposition to the environmental damage the mine was causing.

(At this point one wonders, for right or wrong – probably wrong, how any organisations could have responded without coming the hard man)

We know that then seven long years of civil conflict flared, and many of us know that without Australian military aid PNG would not have been able to continue the conflict. The fact that Australian giant Rio Tinto had a stake in the outcome is something we can only hope is unrelated.

What the film does not tell us is on what terms peace was reached. There was a degree of autonomy but was the mine going to clean up its environmental act?

This is important. If you don’t know the terms of the peace then it is impossible to gauge the costs of the war. For all the blood and pain it is entirely possible the men who came out of the green hills were in the right. This film doesn’t give us that answer.

I admire the man Fred Smith and I love to listen to the music of Fred Smith. I recommend this documentary. It is interesting

But I do wish the substantive issues had not been dumbed down to the point they were.

We left without listening to the Q&A, downstream audiences will not have its benefit.

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