Indigenous media as social activism

by David Leeming

The Australian film Tanna, co-directed by Dean and Martin Butler and made in collaboration with the Yakel people of Tanna, Vanuatu, has won two major prizes at the Venice Film Festival, writes Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian.

I can’t wait to see this film which promises authentic representation of island life portrayed with rich and entertaining drama.The film joins ranks with a growing number of “indigenous” Pacific Islands films:

“Shot entirely in the South Pacific nation of Vanuatu ..(the film).. is based on dramatic events that took place on the eponymous volcanic island in 1987 (and) weaves fascinating details of tribal life into a universally accessible and emotionally affecting romantic drama,”

Richard Kuipers, Variety 

Hearing about the film led me to reflect on a critical analysis of an other film in the same genre, Hereniko’s Rotuman film The Land Has Eyes, that I had conducted earlier this year, and to make connections with new media and activism.

Art activism has always been a key element of social protest. Of course, much art is inherently political, but some genres stand out as being more deliberately so. Gavin Grindon [1] points out that discussions of “activist-art” have two common frames: the post-modern move towards collective or participatory art practices, and the revolutionary ambitions of the historical avant-garde.

Leah Lievrouw [2] discusses this at length, explaining how the Dada and Situationist International movements “are two important sources of influence on today’s alternative and activist new media”. Both were experimental with the new media available to the artists at their time. The abstractions, photo-montage and disjointed imagery of the Dada artists “lampooned the savagery and absurdity of war, politics and popular culture” [2].

Today, the new media activists carry on this tradition with digital and social networking tools. The widespread ownership of mobile devices that support reception, remixing and redistribution, opens up new spaces for participation in activism and new genres for artistic expression. The use of guerrilla art to subvert dominant messages and so challenge normative perspectives, such as this spectacular example, mirrors the earlier strategies of the Situationists, who believed that the only way to confront power was to “construct alternative, disruptive situations in everyday life” [2].

Situationist practices and struggle also predict those of the free culture movement of today, for instance the Situationist Times was published with a form of copyleft statement   to the effect that “all reproduction, deformation, modification, derivation and transformation … are permitted” [3]. In more recent times freely shared media productions made by participants in protests have been a key feature in the new “international cycle of contention” [4] or global wave of protests than began in Tunisia in 2011. Furthermore, freedom technologists of the free culture movement have been instrumental in the mobilisations leading to those protests [5].

It’s not only those art forms and other media productions that find expression through mass protests such as those of the occupy movement. Indigenous film can often be seen as a form of protest and activism, seeking as it (often) does to correct misrepresentation and collective amnesia of colonial histories and their continuing injustices.

As Valerie Alia writes in her book The New Media Nation [6], new media technologies are increasingly affordable and accessible and subsequently “indigenous media arts, actions and activism have an increasing ability to speak to and influence the world”. The indigenous media community also share ethics with the free culture movement due to the participatory and digital nature of the methods and technologies used.

In my adopted region, the Pacific Islands, films such as Tanna and The Land Has Eyes can contribute powerfully to discourses of Pacific values and ethics. Hawaii-based anthropologist Alan Howard [7] says that such productions “are an opportunity to re-enchant a world stripped by dominant culture” and that they can “speak powerfully to those who practice the culture as much as on their behalf.” I think Howard is spot on with that, and that’s why such media productions can also be seen as useful educational resources.

With the dominant media culture, these type of films are also valuable because of their power to reshape popular conceptions of development in the West, where audiences often regard such films as having testimonial value. Howard also makes the point that such films can be more credible as ethnographic texts “than a good many highly regarded anthropological films”.

As Kristin Dowell describes in American Anthropologist [6], mobilisation and solidarity are both inputs and outputs in the practice of indigenous media:

Indigenous filmmakers alter the world as seen onscreen by presenting indigenous stories that draw on uniquely indigenous cultural traditions and aesthetic styles to reimagine the possibilities of filmic representation. Additionally, the practice of media production itself alters indigenous social relations offscreen by providing a crucial practice through which new forms of indigenous solidarity are formed.

Consequently, I really hope that there is an attempt to showcase the film as soon as possible to Tanna and Vanuatu audiences. Quite possibly this has already happened. In the case of “The Land Has Eyes” the Rotuman audience reactions showed how intensely they felt about seeing themselves and their culture portrayed so authentically, meaningfully and sensitively in their “own voice”. This reflects on cultural self-awareness and how it can play a role in strengthening our societies based on values and conceptualisations of wisdom and knowledge that have developed over hundreds of years.

Social media tools help activists to amplify these messages. To demonstrate this, I posted a version of this article to a popular and influential Facebook forum with a strong local membership in my country of residence, Forum Solomon Islands International (FSII). The subject generated a lively discussion. I was able to contextualise within the discourse of indigenous values and solidarity by referring to (1) a local struggle over land rights in relation to mining in the Solomon Islands province of Rennell Bellona, and (2) the Maori TV documentary Mystery of the Lost Waka that explores cultural and historical connections between the Rennell Bellona and Maori peoples. Members of FSII had been appealing to the cultural ethics of the Rennell community in a call for trustees of customary land to rescind certain agreements made with the mining company.

It was interesting to see in action Facebook’s tendency to diffuse ideas across weak-tie networks (a point made by Lim [9])  with the discussion crossing over into spaces concerned with media development and education, through the act of “liking”.



[1] Gavin Grindon (2011) Surrealism Dada and the Refusal of Work, Oxford Art Journal, 34. I 2011 p79-96, retrieved from

[2] Lievrouw, L (2011), Alternative and Activist New Media, Polity Press

[3] Wark, M (2008) 50 Years of Recuperation of the Situationist International, FORuM Project Publications

[4] Benjamín Tejerina et. al. ( 2013) From indignation to occupation: A new wave of global mobilization, Current Sociology 61(4) 377–392

[5] Postill, J. 2014: Freedom technologists and the new protest movements: A theory of protest formulas, Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, SAGE Online First.

[6] Valeria Alia (2010)  The New Media Nation: Indigenous Peoples and Global Communication, Berghahn Books, p164 Google Books

[7] Howard, Alan (2006) Presenting Rotuma to the World: The making of the film The Land Has Eyes, Visual Anthropology Review Volume 22 Number 1 Spring 2006

[8] Kristin Dowell (2006) Indigenous Media Gone Global: Strengthening Indigenous Identity On and Off screen at the First Nations, American Anthropologist Vol. 108, No. 2 June 2006 p376-383, retreived from

[9] Lim, M (2013) Many Clicks but Little Sticks: Social Media Activism in Indonesia, Journal of Contemporary Asia, 43:4, 636-657, p642


About leemingd

Working with ICT and media for development
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