Histories of Violence: Strange Birds of Paradise, Cooking History

Film Festivals, FILM

Fraught and forgotten stories of conflict.

The story of West Papua, one of New Zealand’s closer neighbours, is a tale too little known. In a story with tragic parallels to East Timor, West Papua is an island occupied by the Indonesians since the withdrawal of a European nation (in this case, the Dutch), which has been subjected to considerable human rights violations and a vicious suppression of local cultures. And as is often the case with colonial/post-colonial occupation, the West Papuan story is as much about resource exploitation, Western collusion, and neglected press coverage as it is about the locals themselves. Charlie Hill-Smith’s documentary Strange Birds of Paradise: A West Papuan Story is unashamedly personalised and activist in tone, but tells the story of West Papua in a highly engaging and emotionally affecting way.

Hill-Smith found out about West Papua’s troubles by accident, having travelled there in 1999 as a tourist. He had spent a lot of time growing up in Indonesia, and he shows how in thrall he was with Indonesia’s diverse cultural framework. However, West Papua was always awkwardly justified by the Indonesian authorities post-annexation and via the “Act of Free Choice referendum”, and Hill-Smith’s journey reveals a growing realisation of the situation in West Papua. His documentary interviews Indonesian academics, Australian historians, and of course, West Papuans who have escaped or still live on the island.

The personalised nature of the film shapes a narrative that is a little loose at times, jumping between historical background, personal testament and Hill-Smith’s own observations. More effective in highlighting the resilience and traditions of West Papuans is Hill-Smith’s use of music by a number of refugees throughout (in part because music is really important to West Papuans, and in part because West Papuan music is banned in public by the Indonesian authorities), ending with a concert performed in Melbourne by the musicians along with Australian singer-songwriter David Bridie. Most powerful though is Hill-Smith’s return to West Papua, where he gets firsthand testimony, and witnesses part of the Indonesian army’s role in the territory. A moving piece of political filmmaking, Strange Birds in Paradise rescues the story of a forgotten people.

How did you feel about cooking for people who blew up your goulash in 1956?” While that quote might appear to be a translation from a Monty Python Hungarian phrase book, it’s actually evidence of the hilariously skewed way of approaching 20th Century European history by Cooking History’s filmmakers. The documentary uncovers some recipes that accompanied some of Europe’s most vicious moments, from the Algerian War to the Siege of Leningrad, from the Holocaust to the Balkan War. It has the cheek to suggest that food can represent history just as effectively as an account of a battle or a moving picture, and its irreverent take on recreating history makes it a highly enjoyable watch.

Cooking History features firsthand accounts from participants in the conflict: for example, a Russian woman who made pancakes during the siege of Leningrad, or the personal chef (and taster) of Tito in Yugoslavia. Some of the most fascinating stories are also some of the most unexpected—the Holocaust victims who managed to poison 300 Nazis by dumping an incredible amount of arsenic into bread, or the sole survivor (and cook) of a German submarine which sank. The personalised tales, while only very loosely held together by the narrative, are absorbing, and the filmmakers capture the mordant humour and natural storytelling abilities of the subjects pitch perfectly. The film also presents each recipe, often to comic effect, though the comedy is of a more gallows humour variety than anything else. The documentary’s visuals jump from uncompromising war footage to talking head interviews, effectively placing the individuals within the historical frameworks.

It’s clear director Peter Kerekes is also launching into a critique of the way European history has transpired during the 20th Century. As such, it’s hard not to feel outraged when the French Algerian War veterans talk about coq-au-vins and arrogantly dismiss the Algerians as savages, while defending their right to be there. Or, when the film accounts for the nationalistic fervour that affected the meals accompanying negotiations during the Balkan conflict. If conflicts, cultural snobbery, or revenge can be played out via food—something so basic to human existence—then what hope do people have against weapons or modern technology? There’s a sense that perhaps Kerekes is patronising his characters (the French and the Croatian cook for instance don’t come off particularly well), yet when the 20th Century history of the continent was so typified by war, it’s no surprise that beneath the surface of his film’s humour is an angry core—even if the humble task of eating is its selling point.

‘Strange Birds of Paradise: A West Papuan Story’, Dir. Charlie Hill-Smith
Australia, 2009; 75 minutes
Screening: Auckland, Wellington.
‘Cooking History’, Dir. Peter Kerekes
Slovakia/Austria/Czech Republic, 2009; 88 minutes
Screening: Auckland, Wellington. For New Zealand International Film Festival dates, programme details, and screenings in other regions, visit nzff.co.nz.