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The Crooked Pacific King

Is this the message - forget reading, watch more television?

Bell - Create design festivalRASHMII BELL

BRISBANE A question was thrown into the Twitterverse for perfect strangers to consider and respond to: “Who has been your *biggest* fictional crush?” Unabashed in my public declaration, I declared, “Count Vronsky, closely followed by Pacey Witter.”

Every Thursday at 6pm, the nation’s only television station would filter into homes for its once-a-week broadcast.

The meagre three-hour program anchored by a host who would dutifully read the news then linger for the remaining scheduled shows. Reappearing to announce each, the announcer would convey a preview of the upcoming minutes and then rematerialize at the segment’s end to recap what we had just seen.

This included the minutes allotted to a lone man who, nestling in his armchair in the television studio, would read aloud from a novel.

This story of a childhood in Iceland was told with humour by Queensland academic and author Dr Ka’ri Gi’salon, who spoke of how the absence of television spurred the mammoth publishing efforts of his homeland. The authors were predominantly Icelandic men who talked, wrote and published books about themselves.

‘Forget reading, you should watch more TV’ was the provocation for a debate at the recent CreateX Design Festival moderated by the charismatic Gi’salon.

At this event hosted by Queensland University of Technology’s creative industries faculty, Australian authors Trent Dalton, Kristina Olsson, Sandra Johnson and Steve Irwin wrangled the relative merits of screen and print.

Doubling as adjudicators, the audience needed to be convinced that screen, rather than print, take precedence in their personal media consumption habit.

People familiar with ‘Anna Karenina’ and ‘Dawson’s Creek’ will understand my bewilderment at the suggestion that I discriminate. Early in my life, both the imagination of Tolstoy and the screenwriting team of the US television series engaged my (regrettably, fictional) romantic interests.

For me to now select approval for one format over the other was an impossibility.

Besides, as with all of us who rail against producing repetitive and monotonous content, scouring the respective mediums is something of an antidote to episodes of writer’s block.

There in my hallowed writing space (dining table caked with unidentifiable residue), I switch manically between book and screen; searching for reason, channelling inspiration and eventually enthusiastically forming ideas.

Reading and watching have equal footing in my repertoire. But this debate sought the stronger argument. In the end, I deemed the more convincing team was that championing screen over print.

Screenwriter Steve Irwin was stellar in opening for the affirmative, ‘Forget reading, you should watch more TV’.

Summarising the evolution of storytelling, Irwin recounted the spectrum of tradition also exposed in Trish Nicholson’s ‘A Biography of Story, A Brief History of Humanity’. From sharing stories around small fires underneath the night sky, the creation of writing in Mesopotamia and China, papyrus scrolls, printing contraptions, publishing and distribution methods, Irwin settled on highlighting the modern-day storytelling of the screen.

With about 130 million subscribers across 130 countries, Netflix is proving the drawcard for screen through multiple modes of television, mobile phones and desktop and other computers.

Irwin pointed out that, unlike print publication, ‘show don’t tell’ is the screenwriter’s challenge. In books, writers can indulge in the descriptive. On screen, limited time requires verbal coverage of intended meaning delivered succinctly and accurately. The real power is in the image. Book to film adaptation needs to be a mastery of translation.

Craig Silvey’s ‘Jasper Jones’ comes to mind. In the 2017 film adaptation, Charlie Bucktin is seen grimacing as he pores over piles of newspapers and books in search of clues to the perpetrators of Laura Wishart’s death.

The camera pans across to the country town librarian, who unknown to Charlie, monitors the youthful patron with a suspicious gaze. Only the novel reveals that, during this scene, Charlie is engrossed in the account of the horrific torture, abuse and murder of American teenager, Sylvia Likens. Silvey’s extensive account of this is missing in the film, but Charlie’s face captures his fear at the grotesque words that swim before his eyes.

AUTHOR Kristina Olsson referred to classism and privilege as factors pinned to the established tradition of reading.

Reading was an activity only meant for those who could access printed books - royalty, the wealthy, the ruling class, old white men. Olsson went on to describe how storytelling on-screen has become a leveller, narrowing the margins of opportunity between rich, middle class and the poor.

Television and film have enabled all to connect with the gifts that stories offer: information, education, inspiration, hope, motivation, reason….

Considering this in the context of illiteracy in developing countries, Olsson caused me to reflect on the surge of film production and distribution in Papua New Guinea; and in particular how this translates to the work produced by PNG authors engaged in traditional book publishing.

It is a cause of frustration for PNG authors that the nation has seemingly opted for engaging with the wider population in stories on screen. Financial investment in documentaries and short films have flourished in the past year.

From the annual PNG Human Rights Film Festival to documenting community activism and women playing sport, film has garnered more attention spreading out to multiple distribution points, network inclusion, professional development and international exposure.

Thanks to author Theresa Meki and academic and film producer Dr Mark Eby, I recently I watched an excellent film promoting social change in Papua New Guinea; ‘Aliko and Ambai’.

Set in Goroka and rural areas of the Eastern Highlands, it covered family breakdown, substance abuse, domestic violence, rape, child neglect and underage marriage through the two female characters, Aliko and Ambai. The script was simple and clear with a mixture of English and Tok Pisin making for dialogue that engaged the audience.

Aliko is forced to leave her village and move to town to continue high school where she befriends her neighbour, Ambai. Both teenage girls are confronted with challenges that extend to violating their human rights and general well-being.

Yet the film’s effectiveness as an educational tool to encourage social change is demonstrated through a solution-focused approach. The friends share experiences with each other, are depicted informing close relatives and readily accessing community support services. It is a film that is clear in its efforts to dismantle the shaming, stigma and victim-blaming so rife within PNG society.

Eby and his team mastered ‘show don’t tell’ with diligent sensitivity and minimising the trauma-inducing imagery that so often appears in print whenever PNG is mentioned. A well-written script, a soundtrack buzzing with PNG music and likeable, positive characters like Ethan and Miss Rehzol, optimise the possibilities for connection with a wide audience irrespective of literacy.

The underlying messages of ‘Aliko and Ambai’ are so important, instructive in social change and easy to engage on-screen. Published as book, it would be interesting to monitor its reach, interest and engagement by Papua New Guineans and more importantly assess it as a motivator to enact social change.

Author’s note: Next week, I will be attending a 3-day Screen Queensland screenwriting seminar to be delivered by American author and screenwriter Wendall Thomas. Thomas is a lecturer at the Graduate School of Film and Television at UCLA . Her film and television writing has been used by companies including Disney, Showtime, A&E, NBC and Warner Brothers. Participation in this activity is sponsored by Keith Jackson AM. Following the event, I will prepare a summary of learning to share with PNG Attitude readers and contributors

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Rashmii Bell

I received an email from Dr Mark Eby last week. He's kindly placed this post on the 'Aliko and Ambai' Facebook page for others to read as it provides a snapshot of my thoughts about the short film.

I'd given the film some more thought after attending the Wendall Thomas screenwriting lecture:

https://asopa.typepad.com/asopa_people/2018/12/taking-risks-trying-the-new-some-advice-about-screenwriting.html

Here are some of the points I made in feedback to Mark:

"Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the film and came away thinking just how effective it is as a mechanism for social change; a motivator for all (especially PNGns) who view it.

"I appreciated the solutions focused approach, role modelling of how to sensitively discuss the wide range of issues discussed and demonstration of accessing community services...

"I think 'Ethan' was significant as a model of positive gender relations during trauma..."

Philip Fitzpatrick

There is another connection I didn't mention and that is that a lot of writers are now influenced by film and television and adapt their writing to suit.

Sometimes for dramatic impact but often with an eye to a possible film adaption.

And then we have graphic novels.

All part of human's rich heritage of story telling.

PS Chris Overland mentioned an interesting film a while ago called 'Idiocracy'. Well worth watching. From the guys who brought us Beavis and Butt-head.

Rashmii Bell

Phil - I'm a big fan of 'Keeping Up With The Kardashians' (KUTWK) and the 'Real Housewives' franchise (New Jersey, especially) of the reality TV shows that you don't care for. Hahaha! They really are good for endless laughs.

My absolute preference are for true-crime documentaries. I find the narration very useful for descriptive writing, so in that I find screenwriters are quite skilful.

I think the absolute mastery lays within book to film adaptation. Ian McEwan's 'Atonement' (starring Keira Knightley), Maugham's 'The Painted Veil' ( starring Ed Norton) and the screenplays for Fitzgerald's ' The Great Gatsby ( the version starring Robert Redford) I think are all done well.

But my absolute favourite of all time is Ang Lee' production of Annie Proulx's 'Brokeback Mountain'. ' For me., the love story of Jack' and 'Ennis' became perennial when translated on-screen.

It's an interesting and timely debate for PNG writers to consider as seemingly, the trend of funding/ grants and collaborative opportunities sit with short film, documentaries re PNG.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I think Olsson's assertion that "reading was an activity only meant for those who could access printed books - royalty, the wealthy, the ruling class, old white men" is patently untrue.

It might have been the case 500 years ago but the advent of public libraries, pamphleteers etc, especially in the mid-1700s, quickly made books available to most of the great unwashed.

I'd also suggest that film and television is a completely different medium to books, although the former owes a lot to the latter for the material it uses.

To compare them is, therefore, not particularly useful.

What I'd be more concerned about is the increasing amount of rubbish that is available in both mediums but especially film and television.

For the great unwashed to have the freedom to view film and television to their hearts content is not necessarily a good thing.

The sad fact is that the majority of film and television viewers only watch the rubbish, such as reality TV and comic book films.

Reading an intelligent book or watching an intelligent film is a great joy but hardly the same thing or an either/or choice.

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