Saturday, September 25, 2010

Film Review: Rapa Nui (1994)

It is hard to find time to blog now that school has started again. And yet even with all my homework assignments and other responsibilities, my mind is still lingering off somewhere in the blue Pacific Ocean. I am like a seabird on its many-thousand-mile long journey across the ocean to its seasonal nesting place.

I have actually been thinking a lot about Pacific seabirds over the past month. I have been contemplating the history of American guano extraction in the Pacific during the mid-nineteenth-century and wondering about the ecological dynamics of just how all those nesting seabirds produced so much guano! What were the birds involved? What were the time-spans involved? In short, what would a bird's-eye view of the guano industry look like? I promise more on this topic as my research evolves over the coming semesters...

Rapa Nui (1994)

I did not suspect it at first, but the Kevin Costner-produced 1994 movie Rapa Nui actually tells us a lot about how early Polynesians - in this case Rapanui (Easter Islanders) - thought about and interacted with seabirds.

After his slam dunk movie Dances with Wolves (1990), winning Oscars galore, Costner teamed up with director Kevin Reynolds to keep on the indigenous-peoples theme but this time move out to one of the most isolated human habitations in the whole world: the island known as Easter Island, or Rapa Nui. Rapa Nui got the name "Easter Island" on April 5, 1722 (which happened to be Easter Sunday) when Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen became, as far as we know, the first European to visit the island. But this information is, in a sense, irrelevant to Costner and Reynolds' Rapa Nui because that event (1722 CE) occurred well after the time period that is covered in the film.

Exactly what time period Rapa Nui does cover is hard to say. One criticism of the film is how the narrative seamlessly blends centuries worth of Rapa Nui history into a story staged over the time period of just one or two years. From a historical perspective (I'm reading from Jared Diamond's Collapse here for details), here is a brief history of what we believe really happened on Rapa Nui:

First, Rapa Nui was settled by Polynesian voyagers sometime around 700-1100 CE. These dates are questionable, but they do fit with the trends of Tahitian or Marquesan voyagers traveling and colonizing other islands during these same centuries - such as the colonization of Aotearoa (New Zealand) and Hawaiʻi (Hawaiʻi's second round of colonization) during the first few centuries of the second millennium CE. Diamond says the first Polynesians at Rapa Nui found a thickly forested tropical island. They may have retained trading contacts with nearby (a very relative term in this case - we're talking thousands of miles here!) islands such as Mangareva or the Pitcairn Islands for some time, but eventually the Rapanui lost all contact with all other inhabited islands.

Second, and for reasons that remain quite a mystery, the Rapanui began building large stone statues called moai. Diamond describes how the statues were carved out of rock within the island's only quarry on the eastern side of the island. Then the 1o ton, 20 ton (even a 75 ton!) statues were transported across the island to coastal locations; some were transported as far as 9 miles across the island to their final resting places along the water's edge. (I discuss the moai at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, as well as visitors' strange reactions to it, in an earlier blog post.)

Here is a good place to jump into the movie version of this history: the island is divided into two rival clans. But to be more specific, the Long Ears and the Short Ears are not just clans, but represent both rival socio-political classes as well as different racial groups. Most early Polynesian societies had divisions like these; most had chiefly classes (like Hawaiʻi's aliʻi) and commoners (Hawaiʻi's makaʻāinana). In Rapa Nui the Long Ears are the chiefly families and the Short Ears are the commoners. Social and sexual mixing between these two groups is tapu (taboo). But one young Long Ear boy, Noro (played by Jason Scott Lee) has the hots for a Short Ear girl, Ramana (played by Sandrine Holt). The only way that the Long Ear chief, the "Ariki-mau," will approve of Noro's relationship is if he can win the "birdman competition." Winning the competition would promote Noro to chiefdom, and thus his marriage to Ramana would become permissible. She, in the meantime, needs to hide in a cave for many months so as to not only remain a virgin, but also to lighten her skin. This reminds me of Melville's account of the Taipi in his book Typee (1846); in his discussion of the Taipi's racial dynamics, Melville identified that there was a lighter-skinned ruling class and a darker-skinned commoner class of Enata. How many other Polynesian societies understood racial divisions within their own communities? Or is this just a European/Euro-American projection of our own racial anxieties and guilt onto someone else's past?

Noro is going to have stiff competition in the "birdman" race, however. A Short Ear, Make (played by Esai Morales), has challenged Noro. If Make wins, he will be the first Short Ear to ever receive the title "birdman," and in a sense, all tapu will be broken and the Short Ears will viciously take over the island. What are the Short Ears' grievances, you might ask? Well, the Long Ears force them to build moai statues ad nauseum. In the film we see the Short Ears build moai after moai and each time the Ariki-mau (head chief of the Long Ears) says that they are not good enough and the Short Ears will have to build another one. The Ariki-mau feels it is necessary to build these moai in order to attract the "great white canoe" to return to Rapa Nui.

And what is the "great white canoe," you might ask? We do not find out until the very end, but when we do, it is a great and hilarious surprise. It is an iceberg. Did Antarctic icebergs ever drift as far north as 27°S latitude where Rapanui could witness them? It seems doubtful to me. (In the Northern hemisphere, 27°N latitude includes places like Baja California, Mexico, or the state of Florida - hardly favorite iceberg-watching locations! Jared Diamond says the temperature of Rapa Nui might get down into the 50s° fahrenheit, but that's it. He does not explicitly address the iceberg issue.)

No matter. The iceberg is a symbol. It is a symbol that there is another world out there beyond the horizon. Where do these icebergs come from? Where are they going? Who makes them? Who travels upon them?

So the Ariki-mau keeps building moai to attract the "great white canoe" to return. He wants to ride the "great white canoe" off into the sunset. The Short Ears however do not enjoy transporting 10 ton, 20 ton, 75 ton moai across the island. To do this, they employ hundreds of human bodies (requiring great caloric inputs) as well as thousands of trees. Trees are needed to build tracks along the ground on which the moai can be transported. Trees are needed as props and as ladders so that sculptors can work on the top portions of the moai after it has been erected. The engineering genius of the Rapanui in building and transporting these moai is, for me, one of great stories of human history. The religious, social, and political processes surrounding why and how the moai were built, however, seem tragic (whether we follow the movie version or Diamond's historical version of the narrative). The environmental processes, too, are tragic. The movie touches on this dimension: Noro and Ramana had carved their names into a tree on the island before she went into hiding in the "virgin cave." It just happens that as the Short Ears are building their largest moai ever - because if they successfully finish it before the "birdman" competition then Make will be allowed to compete against Noro - they find themselves in need of the very last trees left on the entire island. They need these trees in order to transport the moai to its resting place along the shore. Despite Noro's protests, they cut down the very tree upon which Noro and Ramana hard earlier inscribed their message of love. And the last tree on Easter Island was felled.

Jared Diamond is similarly concerned with the story of how and why the Rapanui cut down every single tree on their island. The ecological impacts of this deforestation were devastating. Soil erosion intensified. Soils also dried up. These ecological transformations affected the Rapanui's crop yields. Wars broke out. By the time when the island became "Easter Island" in 1722, and the first Europeans took in the sight of this mysterious place, Rapa Nui was completely treeless, littered with the ruins of moai that had been destroyed during civil wars, and a population of only a few thousand Rapanui remained for European eyes, whereas just centuries before perhaps as many as 30,000 had once lived.

The "Birdman" Competition

OK. So after the deforestation of the island, protracted civil wars, population decline, and the toppling of the moai, what was the "birdman" cult, and why did it develop? First, the historical version of things: Diamond suggests that the "birdman" competition only began in the late seventeenth century after all these other disasters had already taken place. Even though the movie puts the moai construction and the "birdman" competition within the same narrative, the truth is that the "birdman" ritual began only many generations after all the moai had been toppled.

The last "birdman" competition was held in 1867. That was just five years after Peruvian slave traders kidnapped about 1,500 Rapanui (approximately half the island's population!) for forced labor on Peru's off-shore guano islands. Practically all of these 1,500 Rapanui died of disease and were eventually of no use to the Peruvians. (Incidentally, the international community pressured Peru to return the islanders and in 1863 a Peruvian ship traveled to the Marquesas Islands to return about 12 (yes, only 12!) Pacific Islanders, those who were still alive. These few Pacific Islanders transfered their smallpox to the Enata and over 1,500 Enata died within the following year because of it. For more on this, see Greg Dening's Islands and Beaches [1980])

Anyway, the "birdman" competition involved climbing down the cliffs from Orongo on the southwestern tip of the main island, swimming across the channel, past Motu Kao Kao, to the island of Motu Nui (these are the only small islands off the shores of Rapa Nui). Here on the Motu Nui the manutara (sooty tern) would come to nest once a year. At the first sign of the terns' arrival, the competition would take place. On Motu Nui the competitors had to find a manutara egg and successfully bring the egg back across the water and up the cliffs to Orongo unbroken. The first one back to Orongo with an unbroken egg wins!

Photograph of Motu Kao Kao in foreground, and Motu Iti and Motu Nui in the background. This is the view from the cliffs of Orongo. The "birdman" competitors had to climb down to sea level then swim across the channel to the farthest island in order to obtain a manutara egg. The waters were shark infested. (Source: Wikipedia)

The movie actually does a great job of showing the thrill and risk of the competition. Some of the competitors die by falling off cliffs from thousands of feet above the ocean below, and one competitor is killed by a shark in the waters. Sharks apparently were a common danger for the "birdman" competitors.

The beauty of the "birdman" competition, focused around the arrival of the nesting seabird manutara - just like the anticipated arrival of the "great white canoe" - is that these occurrences suggest to the Rapanui that there is another world out there beyond the horizon. Where do these birds come from? Then where do they go? Ramana's father, an exile living in a cave along the coast, is a canoe builder. But most Rapanui don't even know what a canoe would be good for! Where would you go? There is a simultaneous fear and excitement about the world beyond the horizon.

The Ariki-mau can't contain his excitement. When the "great white canoe" does finally come, he hops on board - as if an iceberg were a vessel - and despite how cold the "canoe" feels on his feet he waves goodbye to his people and prepares himself for entry into another world. Similarly, the movie ends with the Short Ears taking over the island, massacring the Long Ears, forcing Noro and Ramana to seek shelter in her father's cave where they contemplate using the old man's canoe to leave Rapa Nui for a life somewhere else over the horizon. Without traditional knowledge of oceanic navigation nor any sense of oceanic geography beyond what they could normally see from Rapa Nui's steep cliffs, it is highly unlikely that they would be successful on their journey. They say that the earliest Polynesian navigators could detect an island from as far as a hundred miles away based on the presence and flight patterns of seabirds. With Noro's "birdman" skills, maybe he will luck out and the manutara will lead him to Pitcairn, Henderson, or somewhere else nearby....(although he would not find anyone left alive on those islands. See the next chapter in Diamond's Collapse for that story).

The manutara bird (Source: Wikipedia)

Overall, I must say that I would likely NOT use Rapa Nui in a classroom setting. While I find it very admirable that Costner and Reynolds sought to tell a story completely from the Rapanui perspective, rather than portraying Polynesian-European contact and conflict for the umpteenth time - and I admire that there is not even one Caucasian character in the entire film (surely scandalous by Hollywood standards) -, even so, the movie overall fails to really take us back to "prehistoric" (a misleading term) Rapa Nui. For one thing, the New Zealand-accented English spoken by all the characters in the film is a jarring surprise when the first characters begin to speak. If Costner and Reynolds could do the film again, would they have the actors speak Rapanui this time? (I think of the masterful documentary series We Shall Remain (2009) about Native American experiences of European conquest. In many segments of that movie, actors speak in the real indigenous languages particular to the ethnic groups they are representing. This would be a good model for films about early Polynesia, too.)

Secondly, the casting itself is kind of strange: while some great Polynesian actors fill out the cast as minor Short Ear laborers with almost no speaking lines (such as Cliff Curtis and Rena Owen), the lead roles are portrayed by good actors but of odd backgrounds: Chinese-Polynesian, Puerto Rican, Chinese-French. When it comes to trying to understand the supposed racial dynamics between the Short Ears and Long Ears, these actors' visages only complicate things. This is, of course, a controversial critique. Good actors can of course portray people unlike themselves convincingly and movingly. But African-Americans did not appreciate being sidestepped by white actors in blackface during the early twentieth century, just as Native Hawaiians made a racket most recently when a non-Polynesian actress was cast to play a Hawaiian character in Princess Kaiulani (2009).

A third defect of the movie is the soundtrack. From start to finish we see beautiful shots of Rapa Nui while hearing jungle-like "tribal" music of a variety that I can only call "global beat," if such a genre exists. It is a weird genre to be sure; it appears meant to conjure up images of wild savages beating drums, chanting, foaming at the mouth, preparing to do some violent deed to some other people, or to themselves. I don't think I would be mistaken to characterize the music as "African" sounding, and I don't think I would be wrong to consider the use of this music in a movie about Rapa Nui as not only an insult to Polynesian peoples but also as a blatantly racist insult to Africans. What do Rapanui in loin clothes and African drums have in common but for the "savagery" and "primitivism" they exhibit only to European and Euro-American eyes? In short, Rapa Nui plays into our preconceived notions about indigenous, non-white peoples, and while suggesting that the Rapanui once built amazing statues and practiced fascinating rituals, the movie also suggests that all this was eventually lost due to this people's violent savagery - their war against each other and their war against the landscape itself.

The true history of Rapa Nui is fascinating, and Rapa Nui, the film, is a window into that history; it opens doors for our further exploration; it, in fact, led me to seek out Diamond's Collapse and read more about the island's early history. But to truly understand and do justice to the history of Rapa Nui and its people, we need to be more like the manutara - like the iceberg, even - and keep floating over the ocean until we can look back across the horizon and Rapa Nui is no more than just the seabirds overhead who signal that the island is not too far off. We need to travel to Henderson Island, to Pitcairn Island, and to Mangareva with Jared Diamond (in his next chapter) and consider more of the interrelationships between Polynesian peoples - as well as seabirds - between these islands during the past millennium. And as we travel farther, northwest to the Society and Marquesas Islands, north to Hawaiʻi, and west to Samoa, Tonga, and Fiji, and southwest to Aotearoa, as we take in the history of Polynesian voyaging and island colonization as one grand transpacific history, only then can we better understand why one group of original people - the first Polynesians - had such divergent historical experiences once they inhabited each and every other island across the Central and Eastern Pacific. Some Polynesian colonies succeeded. Some collapsed. Similarly, some Polynesian ethnic groups today are growing at faster rates than ever before in their people's history. And yet other groups are struggling to hang on to a common language and identity as a distinct people. These are histories that leave us floating off somewhere in the middle of the ocean with many more questions than we have answers. But for now, that is a good thing, and we ride the "great white canoe" in this state of uncertainty until the birds overhead lead us to the next clue.


  1. Malo

    I haven't seen that movie in years! Thanks for the read. I haven't read Jared Diamond's "Collapse", but I'm interested in your views on the argument that Rapa Nui society didn't collapse due to ecological devastation, but because of European disease and slave traders.

    This argument is put forward by the not-so-academic source, Wikipedia, under Easter Island.


  2. Hi FreshyNZ:

    Glad you read the post and thanks for offering your thoughtful comment! I checked that Wikipedia article you mention, and it appears that the critique of Jared Diamond's "Collapse" in the Wikipedia article is based pretty much on just one source cited in the footnotes: Peiser (2005) "From Genocide to Ecocide: The Rape of Rapa Nui" Energy and Environment 16(3, 4). I have not read this article, but I quickly scanned the internet to read some reviews and summaries of this article. Apparently Peiser's thesis is to argue that Diamond's position that "ecocide" caused the collapse of Rapa Nui society neglects the important fact that European "genocide" also was a significant factor in the "collapse" of Rapa Nui society.

    In Diamond's defense, his interest in "Collapse" was in solely telling the history of Rapa Nui before 1722 (that is, before any evidence of contact with European peoples). Peiser seems to suggest that Diamond's argument is based too heavily on shaky oral histories, rather than on archeological data. But in fact, as well as I can remember, the majority of Diamond's data comes exactly from mostly archeological data, but also from reconstructions of climate history and other data from the natural sciences. I think his data is pretty sound. Diamond argues that the population of Rapa Nui fell rapidly from around 30,000 people to just a few thousand by the early 1700s. Also, the palynological (pollen data) evidence that Diamond provides suggests pretty clearly that Rapa Nui was once a lush semitropical forested island and then in the 1700s it was almost totally treeless. It is hard to challenge this data which suggests that the Polynesians of Easter Island definitely made incredible modifications of their environment before European contact.

    The real question here is WHICH COLLAPSE MATTERS MORE? It appears that Peiser and other critics of Diamond believe that whether or not the Rapanui caused great ecological change before contact with outsiders, it was precisely their contact with Europeans - and the introduced diseases, and slave trading (1860s) - that most affected the Rapanui community. Diamond describes an ecological collapse, and Peiser et al describe a social and political collapse. They are too separate events: the first collapse occurs in the 16th and 17th centuries and the second one in the 19th century.

    So, the short answer is that both arguments are right! Rapa Nui society absolutely changed as part and parcel of the ecological change that the Rapanui and other environmental factors brought upon their island. And Rapa Nui society absolutely changed and suffered due to the intrusion of European diseases, explorers, colonists, slave traders, etc.

    Thanks again for your comment and thought-provoking question! I wonder if you find my answer satisfactory?

  3. Malo Gregory

    To tell you the truth, I think I need to do some more of my own research on the topic.

    I think it is part of popular culture the story of Easter Island - the rise and fall of a civilisation, and the ecological questions it poses for humanity today. Even as a school kid, I was under the impression that there were no more indigenous Rapa Nui people as they had become extinct.

    It wasn't until a few months ago when I watched a documentary on TV ( when I began to question my pre-conceptions of Rapa Nui history.

    Because the alternative view of Rapa Nui history that I got from the documentary was that while there was a serious decline in Rapa Nui civilisation from ecological disaster, Rapa Nui people were able to find their own solutions (Birdman cult) by a different means of distributing scarce resources and therefore stabilised their civilisation. But the "genocide" from European contact had a far greater impact on Rapa Nui civilisation than the ecological events.

    Yet it is only the "ecological" disaster that is known in popular culture at the least, as the reason why Rapa Nui civilisation collapse. Perhaps because it suits modern/Western popular culture to have a "primitive" civilisation collapse due to their own doings. It might not suit our (Western) view of "prehistoric" peoples if they actually found a solution to their problems and their civilisation did not collapse. It might also not suit our (Western) thinking that the greatest harm to Rapa Nui civilisation was not themselves but European contact.

    But then again, perhaps I am romanticising Polynesian history. Hence I need to study up on this topic more.

    Thanks again for the great read.

  4. Dear FreshyNZ:

    Once again you make some excellent points for arguing against the "Western" narrative that "primitive" Polynesian people destroyed their own civilization. But I do think you actually might be "romanticizing" Rapa Nui history a bit, too!

    But first, I acknowledge and appreciate your argument that the Rapanui found a way to overcome their ecological catastrophe and reorganize their society in its aftermath. I hope very strongly that the few thousands of Rapanui living under Chilean rule today can similarly overcome centuries of oppression and in turn experience another period of cultural and demographic rebirth. But I would like to make the point that no people's history can only be about victimization/oppression and resistance/resilience. Such a narrative grants the Rapanui absolutely NO power over their own historical trajectory, and I find such an interpretation overly mythological as well as ahistorical.

    This debate is actually very similar to the one - at least within academia - about Native Americans and the environment: were Native Americans careful protectors of their environment (as we have long mythologized and romanticized them to be), or did they actually use and abuse resources, make mistakes, and sometimes cause great extinctions and ecological disruptions? Environmental historians - like myself - are increasingly convinced that Native Americans, just like Europeans and other peoples the world over, DID use and abuse resources and exploit plant and animals species. I truly believe that we unjustly deny Native Americans of their history (the good and the bad of it) by glossing over these details with romanticizations of how we would like to believe pre-contact Native Americans behaved.

    For me, it's the same issue with Rapa Nui history: do we justly honor the Rapanui people's history if we simply mythologize and romanticize their past, assuming that they lived in harmony with nature rather than exploiting nature? Or should we treat their history just as we treat European people's history, understanding that they made both smart decisions AND misguided ones? Which is a fairer way to treat a people's past? I would choose for the more complex and morally ambiguous option.

    I also still maintain that we can have BOTH these stories about Rapa Nui. We can tell both the story of the first collapse - ecological - and then the second one - epidemic/demographic/societal/political. Look, in the course of just a few years, Peruvian slave traders kidnapped approximately HALF of the remaining Rapanui population in the 1860s, enslaved them, and killed them by exposing them (unintentionally I think) to diseases such as smallpox. To lose half your people: that is undoubtedly a "collapse." So you are right, we need to tell this second story of "collapse" much louder, because fewer people seem to know it.

    That is to say that you are right that we talk too much about the ecological collapse and not enough about the slave trade and epidemics of the nineteenth century. But I don't think it is fair to downplay or gloss over either story. To truly give the Rapanui our ears and hear their long and complex history, we need to be open to the possibility that the Rapanui of the past were both victors and victims, destroyers and survivors. It's that complexity that makes people "human." Anything less is just mythology.

    I need to study this topic much more, too, FreshyNZ! You have definitely encouraged me to look deeper into the 1860s slave trade. I think there are many important stories waiting to be told there. Thanks again for the conversation!