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Bougainville: Our Island, Our Fight (1998)

Documents an indigenous people who fight against a multinational mining company (Panguna copper mine) and government forces (PNG). The guerrillas relay the belief that they fight to defend their independence and preserve the local environment on the island of Bougainville.



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Credited cast:
Joseph Kabui ...
Francis Ona ...


The Island of Bougainville is located in the Solomon Islands, but is politically considered a territory of Papua New Guinea. For the last ten years the people of this Island have fought a guerrilla war with salvaged and recovered World War II weaponry against government forces supplied with more modern equipment. The government has instituted a a complete economic blockade of the island in addition to an extended campaign of aerial bombardment and violence against its civilian population. Bougainville - "Our Island, Our Fight" depicts the world of Bougainville residents as they leave their traditional coastal society to take refuge from a dangerous military conflict. An explanation of the conflict's causes reveals that the installation of an open cut copper mine at Panguna had initially offered promise of economic prosperity for the region. Bougainville residents eventually determined that the mine project entailed significant ecological damage and social exploitation. Through ... Written by ipso-facto productions

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1998 (USA)  »

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Over View of Bougainville: Our Island, Our Fight
10 August 2006 | by (Australia) – See all my reviews

Bougainville – 'Our Island, Our Fight'

Max Bourke

In the early 1990s attempts were made to raise public awareness about Australian complicity in the tragic events occurring only a few hundred miles off-shore in Bougainville. In an age driven by images there were none to portray the effect that continued attacks and a blockade were having on Bougainvillian. They were rendered invisible by a lack of information. It could be said that the denial of media access has been as detrimental to the people of Bougainville as the blockading of food and medical supplies, which is why Wayne Coles- Janess' film is an important and courageous production. It is also highly acclaimed, boasting awards from several festivals, including the Houston and Flagstaff International Film Festivals.

Smuggled by banana boat across the PNG patrolled border, Coles-Janess visited Bougainville several times in the mid 1990s to make the only documentary filmed during the conflict. His task was made none the easier by the lack of broadcaster support that his early proposals met. In the end he covered the production costs himself, financing the project by shooting current affairs stories for the ABC's Foreign Correspondent whenever he visited the island. His persistence paid off: as the video slick proclaims, this film is 'the only record of life for refugees in the jungle and dramatic front line footage of Bougainville's fight for independence'.

Coles-Janess drops us in at the deep end from the start: 'I didn't recognize the body that was lying there. It was all squashed up like a pig that's been cut'. These words come from a survivor of Papua New Guinea's ten year civil war on Bougainville, backed by explicit still images of the carnage. Throughout the programme the violence of this war—a visit to an over-attended makeshift clinic treating victims of military attacks among the more arresting scenes—is presented with the same understated frankness as the interviews; not sensationalized, but shocking images of a shocking reality.

Released from Australian administration in 1975, Bougainville came under Papuan control despite a vigorous independence movement. Archival footage at the start of the film exposes the colonial attitudes of an Australia oblivious to the warning signs of trouble to come. Mineral exploitation profits from the Panguna copper mine, established and run by Australian multinational CRA (now merged with RTZ and known as Rio Tinto) have earned PNG billions of dollars, while delivering little compensation to the locals whose land has been taken or devastated by pollution. The BRA (Bougainville Revolutionary Army) was formed, fighting a guerrilla operation to shut down mining operation and later, under PNG counter-attack, broadening their scope into an independence war. Unable to regain control, the PNG military enforced a ten year economic and communications blockade of the island. According to the film the result has been 14,000 deaths—from a population of only 160,000.

Coles-Janess speaks with a wide range of Bougainvillians, from villagers displaced by fighting to Bougainville Revolutionary Army (BRA) soldiers and the President Francis Ona of the Bougainville Interim Government (BIG). These interviews, many of them relating the horrors they had personally witnessed at the hands of the PNG army, are the meat of the film. The directness with which the characters discuss the morbid and personal realities of war manage to cut through news-hardened defences to land emotive blows.

A sparse narration ties together these interviews and several observational sequences, with additional exposition in the form of text plates. Even so, the story sometimes wanders and risks losing the thread of the narrative. Fortunately the subject matter is compelling enough to carry the film; in fact you would be hard pressed to look away.

The observational sequences bring home the reality of life on Bougainville. The filming of an abandoned coastal village is cut short by the arrival of a PNG military helicopter. A shot of the aircraft passing overhead cuts prematurely and is followed by an erratic point-of-view scramble through thick grass and undergrowth. In the background the noise of the chopper turbine is interspersed with machine-gun fire. The camera weaves through bracken, then drops to the deck briefly before continuing on.

One of Coles-Janess' two companions—both unarmed—was wounded in the attack. Their flight continues with this man piggy-backed by the other, Coles-Janess and camera bringing up the rear. When they stop Coles-Janess has the foresight to place his camera strategically, capturing the scene as he and his companion dress the wounded man's arm before moving on. Another observational scene shows a Chiefs Meeting in South Bougainville and here a tension hinted at in some of the interviews becomes explicit. 'Yes, we'd all like independence,' says one impassioned speaker. 'But by the time we get it we could be dead.'

But Francis Ona is insistent on independence as the only lasting solution for Bougainville and he has a message for the Australian audience. Australia, he says, is supplying PNG with helicopters, ships, weapons, ammunition and training. Shots of empty munitions cases stamped with Australian government identification back his claim. 'Australia is fighting this war,' he says. 'Without Australia we can beat Papua New Guinea.'

Bougainville – 'Our Island, Our Fight' is an eye-opening tour of a conflict that has otherwise been almost invisible to the outside world. And for Australians it is a poignant reminder of the politically bound nature of foreign aid. Seeing the brutal effect of our own war machinery, albeit in the hands of a neighbour, makes the impact of this film very visceral indeed.

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