SEAN FLYNN | Smithsonian Magazine | Extract
WESTERN HIGHLANDS - The road out of Mount Hagen deteriorates by the mile, the pitted blacktop of the little city crumbling to dirt before collapsing into reddish ruts scraped through the deep green of Papua New Guinea’s highlands.
In the final stretch before Kilima, a bedraggled coffee plantation in the Nebilyer Valley, our Toyota Land Cruiser has to crawl in low gear, wobbling and tottering through craters and washouts.
Bob Connolly bounces in the front seat, rolling with the pitch and yaw. He’s just over 70 years old but sturdy, dark-haired and barrel-chested, with a round face that still seems boyish.
He grumbles about the drive: too much traffic in town, too little maintenance everywhere else. When he was a younger man, the drive from Mount Hagen to Kilima took him 35 minutes. Now it takes twice as long.
The highlands seemed to hold so much promise when Bob first came to Kilima in the early 1980s. Bob is an Australian documentary filmmaker, and he lived here for years in a hut thatched with kunai grass, making films with his wife, Robin Anderson.
The plantation sprawled in endless rows, trees heavy with coffee cherries, wide fields pale with virgin beans drying in the sun. Back then, Kilima’s owner, Joe Leahy, was wealthy and powerful, and he employed dozens of local people to tend his groves and work his pulping factory.
Many in the Ganiga tribe eventually became his partners, and they were going to get rich in the coffee business, too.
Bob and Robin made three documentaries in the highlands, two of them about Joe Leahy and his neighbours. Each was a triumph, and they still are recognized as such, icons of a genre, touchstones of both anthropology and film.
The initial one, First Contact, was nominated for an Academy Award, and the last, Black Harvest, had “extraordinary historical resonance,” the New York Times wrote, “so rich that watching it feels like taking an inspired crash course in economics and cultural anthropology.”
Newsweek said it had “the scale and richness of classical tragedy.” Which was true, because everything ended so badly.
On a clear, bright summer morning more than two decades later, Bob inhales a great gulp of crystalline air. Away from Mount Hagen, a chaotic burgh wrapped in barbed wire and wood smoke, the highlands are pristine. Bob always was struck by that, the clarity of the place.
As for the rest—Kilima, Joe, the Ganiga who have lived on this land for untold generations—Bob isn’t sure how it all turned out, and that’s why he’s back for the first time in more than 25 years. Maybe he’ll even find enough story for a fourth film.
The road tumbles down a final derelict hill and flattens into a dirt plain between a rusted-out shed, which is old, and an iron-roofed fundamentalist church, which is new. Then it narrows and rises again toward Joe’s house, up on the next hill.
There are five people walking along the road between the shed and the church, one of them a Ganiga man in a blue jacket and cap that seem too warm for the morning. He’s waving for the Toyota to stop.
It takes Bob a moment to recognize the man in the cap, to sort the face and the name from his memory. “Paraka!” he then says brightly, and Paraka beams. He leans in through the window, holds Bob in a light embrace.
“Happy to see you,” Bob tells him in his still serviceable pidgin. “What’s going on up at the house?” Bob asks.
Bob’s heard that Joe is going to kill a pig in honour of his return. He thinks there might be a celebration, a dozen or more tribesmen, all old friends. Perhaps there will be speeches, maybe even a welcoming sing-sing. “No, don’t tell me,” Bob says suddenly. He wants to be surprised.
Paraka watches as the Toyota starts up the hill, but he does not follow. He knows he’s not welcome at Joe Leahy’s place. Joe has a complicated relationship with his Ganiga neighbors, and that hasn’t changed at all.