On behalf of the living

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    Start 02 May 2024, 5:30pm
    End 02 May 2024, 8:30pm


    An anthropologist embarks on a belief-experiment to better understand a world in which the spirits of the dead are alive and active. Ton Otto first came to Baluan Island in Papua New Guinea as a PhD student to learn about the local culture by participating in it. That project goes on, and some islanders say he is ready to ritually contact the spirit of his late adoptive father on the island.

    Ton's father in Maastricht, the Netherlands, who is a devout Catholic, urges him to go ahead with those rites in all sincerity, reasoning that ‘miracles can happen’. His mother, though, remains sceptical. Likewise not fully convinced is Christian Suhr, Ton’s long-time ethnographic film partner. Their struggles over how to approach the filming are laid bare on screen.

    On Baluan, Ton’s adoptive sisters, Ninou and Asap, are ready to help him reach out to their father on the other side, but brother Pwanou will not join, since he believes that the Bible forbids the summoning of spirits. All this sets up an intricate cross-cultural film essay on the human impulse to engage the supernatural, for good and ill.

    "On Behalf of the Living is a stunning film. It is about Papua New Guinea, and the Netherlands and Denmark, but even more, it is about the nature of human life and death. Terrence Malick-like in its scope, it is also the best film of any kind about religion I have seen in a long time … It is a major piece of work.” (Prof. Joel Robbins, Cambridge University, UK.)


    For further information, contact vyvyen.wong@jcu.edu.au     

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    Directors’ statement


    My motivation for making this film is to confront one of the great mysteries of human life: its ending. What happens after our biological demise? What kinds of afterlife are imaginable? How do we continue to relate to our dead loved ones? Being an anthropologist by profession I was driven to immerse myself in different cultural worlds, not only to discover alternative beliefs and practices but also to challenge my own ideas about the continuities and discontinuities between the living and the dead. To understand my own background better, I invited my aging Dutch parents into the project before travelling to Baluan, an island in the South Pacific, together with my colleague filmmaker Christian Suhr. On Baluan I have intermittently carried out ethnographic fieldwork for more than 30 years and have become part of a local family as well. This time I wanted to find out how my adopted siblings continue to relate to our deceased father Ngat Selan and what this meant for me personally. The cinematographic medium had earlier proven its strength for my engaging with my Baluan family in an intimate, reciprocal, and communicable way. This film has genuinely become their project too. During the production my Dutch father Kees Otto died. This film is dedicated to the continuing afterlives of Kees and Ngat.


    ‘On behalf of the living’ is the third film I have made with Ton and his adoptive family on the small volcanic island of Baluan in Papua New Guinea. What attracted me to the project is the people and the long story that Ton has had with them. Baluan is an astonishingly diverse and lively hub for cultural, philosophical, and religious creativity. It is home to around 2500 people from two ethnic groups, who speak multiple languages, and belong to four denominations of Christianity, one of which is locally founded, or practice Bahá’í. In addition, its people adhere to an old but living tradition of speaking with the ancestors. Ton and I recorded our first film together on Baluan Island in 2003. I remember stepping out of the boat and immediately being greeted by Ton’s adopted family. Ton’s sisters were crying, expressing their sorrow over the recent death of their father. Other members of the family encouraged me to film the deeply emotional arrival. Our third film continues the exploration of family relations around and across death by asking what it means to be a part of a world where ancestors are active and can have a direct impact on their living descendants. We explore how Ton as a family member and as an anthropologist relates to all this and how his long-term fieldwork and his relationships on the island influence his understanding of his own place in the world. His latest film is ‘Light upon light’ (premiered CPH:DOX 2022).


    'On behalf of the living’ plays out on two levels; an essay on humanity's preoccupation with life after death and a tale of one anthropologist’s experiment: to take his lifelong ‘participatory’ research on a Papua New Guinea isle to its logical, if counter-intuitive, conclusion. The film is made up of three strands; first, the material that Ton filmed with his parents in Maastricht, where, among other daily concerns, ideas of faith, God and eternity are argued out, ’en famille. Then there's the main filming on Baluan Island: Christian covers Ton’s reunion with his adoptive family and before long the two find themselves in the middle of some complicated disputes - of the spiritual and the personal kind. The third strand (in a different register altogether) consists of a series of dialogues between Ton and Christian, one on one.  In alternating first-person-view, they interrogate and challenge each other with a rare directness.  They get right down to the very viability of their experiment - even of the social scientific project, as a whole. This strand functions throughout as a Greek Chorus, a check on the ideas and insights generated out of the main storyline. Whilst probing the realm of the ancestors, the film's primary source and its frame of reference remains the lived experience of those people - mostly family - it embraces with its lens. Though shot by scholar-filmmakers, the work’s open-ended style suggests more the modest curiosity of the dramatist. Some of his films as director are: The Great Chimbu Pig Festival (1972); Concerning the Lives of the People (1973); Trobriand Cricket - an ingenious response to colonialism (1975); Ileksen (1978); Celso and Cora - a Manila story (1984); Valencia Diary (1991); Man of Strings (1999); Koriam's Law (2005).


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