Black Harvest

1992 Directed by Bob Connolly, Robin Anderson.

REVIEWED By Pamela Bruce, Fri., June 11, 1993

Winner of the Grand Prix at Cinema du Reel, Paris, this well-crafted Australian documentary presents the ramifications of neocolonialism in modern-day Papua, New Guinea, in particular, the socioeconomic effects of the coffee industry -- which is vital to the survival of the Highlanders, or native people, who depend upon this industry as the primary source of their livelihood. But, due to the plummeting world-wide prices of coffee within the last several years, the Highlanders have borne the economic brunt of hard times, as well as the problems created by warfare among the various tribes. Connolly and Anderson's film opens with a prologue of newsreel footage from 1933 which depicts the Highlanders' first contact with white men via an Australian expedition led by a former gold prospector named Michael Leahy. The natives mistook the whites for “superhuman beings,” but it soon became apparent that this was only the beginning of the Australian exploitation of the Highlands in the guise of “civilization.” Leahy fathered a mixed-race baby with a young native girl, and moving forward some 50 years, this mixed-race baby is now known as Joe Leahy, a wealthy land owner who runs a profitable coffee plantation in the Highlands. Despite his wealth, however, Leahy lacks social standing in both native and white worlds. He decides to approach the elder of the Ganiga tribe -- Popina -- and propose that if the tribe allows him to acquire some of their land, then they will be able to enter into a partnership with him for a coffee plantation, which has the potential to earn the tribe a great deal of money. The Ganiga agree to the proposition, despite the underlying ambiguity of Leahy not fully explaining the possible economic risks involved with regard to the coffee market, and his insistence on 60% ownership. Unfortunately, the coffee market crashes, and the Ganiga reluctantly find themselves working for near-slave wages to keep the plantation afloat. Further complications arise when an ally tribe request the Ganiga's assistance in a tribal war, and all work on the plantation ceases, leaving a thoroughly frustrated Leahy caught between the old world of his tribal roots and the modern, neocolonial values that made him successful. Shot in 16mm with a low budget, this documentary manages to avoid the cheap look usually associated with such ventures through good sound quality and smooth transitions. Connolly and Anderson also take the viewer into the life and plight of the Ganiga without being heavy-handed and leave us wondering, if coffee is the second most imported commodity in world trade (next to petroleum products), just who is getting rich from it?

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Black Harvest, Bob Connolly, Robin Anderson

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