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Reflecting on Reflections on Rapa Nui
By Paisley Hibou
Tammy Kinsey is a Professor of Film at the University of Toledo in the Midwest. She has been making films since she was eight years old, and continues to revel in the possibilities of experimental film and varied modes of storytelling. She received her MFA in Filmmaking from Virginia Commonwealth University. Her work is a hybrid of experimental film and documentary, often dealing with identity, personal history and memory. She works in digital media as well as 16mm and Super 8 film formats, melding the traditional with the new in moving image presentation. Kinsey's most recent film is Reflections on Rapa Nui, which will be making its online premiere here on Quail Bell on February 25, 2014. Her thoughts on this experimental documentary about Easter Island.
What did you know about Rapa Nui prior to making this film? How was your knowledge and perception changed now that you've gone through the effort of traveling to Easter Island and creating this film?
I knew about the moai (those monolithic figures), the big heads in the fields and standing by the sea. I also had some sense of the Birdman Cult of Orongo and the ‘god’ Make-Make. This came from growing up with the National Geographic magazine, along with watching the 1950’s documentary Kon-Tiki and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. Those tales of exploration were the stuff that fueled my imagination when I was a kid. So my knowledge of Rapa Nui before making the film was mostly just broad strokes about difference and the sense of a magical, secret storybook land far, far away. Over the past several years, I have had a great deal of curiosity about it and what it had become in the 21st century.
In making this film, I found that it is REALLY, really far away from other land masses, and very small. It’s like a dot in the ocean—and I wondered about the monumental set of meanings found in the giant heads so far removed from everything else. How had these moai been perceived throughout the years? I was really looking for interpretations beyond those of concrete, Western anthropological summations of a culture. So often the questions are about how they were moved and why they were made. To me, that’s almost reductive. I was interested in the folktales and legends, in the indigenous notions of the moai, and in a sense of the place now. This played out in days of walking and filming, gathering visual representations of place, and in the experience of a story told to me by a woman in a little shop in Hanga Roa about how the moai stopped the tsunami waves after the mainland earthquake. The waves were surprisingly low after the 2010 earthquake, and I loved hearing the indigenous perspective on that.
I enjoyed each greatly but there was a distinct difference between my experience of the indigenous islanders and the people of mainland Chile, and I think that’s very much about size, population density, and location. My interest in visual language and referents of space as sacred and as purveyor of Meaning were amplified on Rapa Nui because of the experience of it as a truly remote place. The town on the island, Hanga Roa, is very small; the entire island is about 120 square miles, and blessedly unspoiled. Rapa Nui felt very much like a sanctuary.
Do you consider film a form of visual anthropology? Do you consider yourself a visual anthropologist or a curator of visual anthropology?
I think it can be, but that’s not how I approached this project. I think the subjective experience of place is challenging to the desire for objective study, and its something I am very much aware of when I travel and when I work, even as I try to have pure experience. This intersection of thought is what I seek to evoke with the overlapping sounds in the audio track.
What are some of the observations you made about material culture in Rapa Nui life?
The local connection to the moai seemed to be one of respect and protection (they protect the moai, and the moai somehow look out for them). More than once I saw locals telling visitors to stand further away from the statues, which seemed to me to be saying that the moai need their space both literally and figuratively.Locals seem to be a part of the living world of the moai, not distant or removed from them but cohabitating with them. I began to ask, what does it mean to grow up on Rapa Nui? When do kids realize that they live in a place unlike any other place in the world? I was there in July and August, which is winter in the southern hemisphere, but you could still see the presence of the tourist industry. There were fliers for performances featuring dancers and musicians, and regular screenings of feature films based loosely on the place. I found the church and graveyard in Hanga Roa intriguing with its blend of indigenous and Catholic imagery. I also witnessed a non-indigenous religious pilgrimage–a traveling service at the ahu at Tongariki. There’s a definite mingling of cultures.
Did you have a chance to visit mainland Chile? How did that experience differ from your time on Easter Island?
Yes—I arrived in Santiago and spent a couple of days there before and after travelling to Rapa Nui. I found the mainland to be different in many ways, from the local color to the climate, flora and fauna, and the urban versus rural environment. But most significantly for me—as mentioned in the film—I had a critical encounter with a local there, and it really guided me as I began the journey. My first night in Santiago, I found a small café to have a bite to eat. I struck up a conversation with a man who worked there. He asked me what I was doing in Chile, how I planned to spend my time there. I said I was flying over to Rapa Nui. He furrowed his brow, thought for a moment, then looked directly at me and said, “They think they’re Polynesian.” He seemed disappointed, perhaps even sad for me about Rapa Nui. It was more than two thousand miles away, under Chilean rule, an indigenous population on a remote island. He told me there wasn’t much to see there. I think it was the presence of time, history, and a sense of ownership on his mind. ‘That’s Chilean territory, not Polynesian …’ That statement really resonated with me while I was there.
How did your time in Virginia influence your understanding of history and your approach to telling stories through film and photography?
I was born and raised in Richmond, and my mother’s side of the family goes back generations in Virginia. I left Richmond for several years but returned because the graduate program in Photography and Film at VCU was just what I was looking for as an artist. (Joan Strommer was my mentor; I had seen her work when I was younger). My father is from North Carolina, and his father is from Georgia—there are deep, multi-generational connections there as well. I am very much shaped by my family history and ties to the South. I find connection to the oral traditions of storytelling, and I think that even as a child I was striving to tell stories in this way as a means of creating concrete manifestations of the visual and verbal semantics I was experiencing at home and at grandma’s house.
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