Kate Mead | Fairfax
Rawiri Paratene spent his first night in Papua New Guinea in police headquarters with Andrew Adamson. The pair were not there as law breakers, mind, but for the rather frightening reason that the 2011 Japanese tsunami had just struck and the Pacific island was vulnerable.
Paratene and Adamson were safer in this police house, located high on a hill, than if they had stayed in their previous dwelling. “If the tsunami went wider we were going to be the first hit, so it was an amazing time,” says Paratene. “My first night on the job with Andrew Adamson was spent with us sleeping on the floor in police digs hoping that a tsunami wouldn’t wipe the islands out.”
Fortunately Papua New Guinea remained safe and Paratene could continue working there as acting coach for the film Mr Pip, directed by Adamson.
The film was largely shot on Bougainville and Paratene, who spent a total of four months on the island, worked with many locals – untrained actors who had roles as villagers – and lead actress, newcomer Xzannjah. In fact, the only person on Bougainville to appear on screen that Paratene didn’t coach was the experienced Hugh Laurie.
Now 17, Xzannjah was just 14 when she began working on Mr Pip. While living on Bougainville, Paratene stayed with Xzannjah and her family in their home in Arawa, and he says he felt like part of the family. He can’t speak more highly of the young actress. “Xzannjah is bright, the camera adores her. She works really hard – we would be doing a full day’s work and then she would be filming all day and she would come home from filming and do study,” he says. “She must have got tired but she never showed it . . . as a 14-year-old girl would be entitled to.”
For the unacquainted, Mr Pip tells the story of a young girl, Matilda (Xzannjah) stuck in the ruinous clutches of war on Bougainville, all the while being inspired by her teacher, Mr Watts (Laurie), who reads Great Expectations to his class. Published in 2006, the critically-acclaimed novel earned its author, Lloyd Jones, a place on the shortlist of the Man Booker Prize. The film adaptation is a magnificent work, cinematically beautiful, and with marvellous acting. It is, in turn, funny and harrowing. The depiction of conflict during the civil war, which lasted from 1988 to 1998, is raw and affecting.
“In Arawa you can still see the scars of war are still there and it still hasn’t recovered,” says Paratene. “I loved that [the people] made a stand. It was costly but I love that they stood up to the giant money powers that be and said ‘we don’t want to play your game anymore’, and as far as I can see they won. They’re very admirable people but there’s a lot of hurt still there.”
Xzannjah believes the film, and indeed the book itself, fulfils an important function of bringing Bougainville’s dark history to people’s attention. “I thought it was a very, very good story. I mean, the story itself helps people to realise the humanitarian version of conflict that took place in Bougainville, because most of the time [when] you hear about the conflict that took place, people just see the political part of it, like ‘oh, there was a war about the mine’ but they don’t actually see all the pain and suffering that people had to go through, that people had to experience, and how it scarred them for life, and how people had to find it within themselves to actually move on from the experience.”
Paratene agrees the story is powerful: “I read the script before I read the novel, and the way that Andrew had written the script, he clearly wanted to make a film that ‘went there’ – went into the hideous, ugly, unnecessariness of war, and this spoke to me loud and clear.”
Xzannjah, who admits she is quite shy, is still getting used to all the attention brought about by the film. “I don’t put myself in the spotlight. People don’t take notice of me, so it’s all been very different and very new.”
She mostly grew up in Bougainville but moved around the place according to the work her mother, Healesville Joel, got in her profession as a gynaecologist. Last month, Xzannjah moved to
Gladstone, near Brisbane, after her mother got a job there.
Joel also plays Matilda’s mother in Mr Pip, a role that unveiled a new dynamic between the two. “They actually had to teach me how to talk back and shout at my mum,” Xzannjah laughs. “When I play Matilda onscreen, people get to see a side of me that they don’t usually see. I get to get angry, I get to be disobedient.”
In reality Xzannjah is very humble and has a warm disposition, and this newfound fame seems surprising to her. “Back in my normal life I don’t make such a huge deal of it. But the thing is I’m walking down the street and then someone says ‘Hey, you were great!’ and they come and shake my hand and say ‘thanks a lot,’ and I say, ‘For what!? Do I know you?’, ‘oh, no, I just watched your trailer’, ‘oh, thank you’.”
She prefers to take in the world around her, rather than be the focus of it. “I like thinking – I don’t know how to put it, but I find people – how they live their lives – quite fascinating. I like to sit down and watch how they live their lives and think about it then I write down stuff, just take notes and ideas, and write down short stories.”
Acting has been a passion of Xzannjah’s since she was in primary school and performed in musicals including Bedside Manner, Ratbags, A Christmas Carol, and she played the role of Jesus in The Passion of the Christ. But Xzannjah had to put her stage talents on hold after her mother wanted her to concentrate more on school. “Back home I was like, oh I have a dream to act but here [Papua New Guinea] actors only get so far – I didn’t imagine this. And then when [Mr Pip] came up I was like, ah OK, why don’t I just try, and then here I am!”
Xzannjah originally wanted to become a petroleum engineer, and she’s still planning on attending university and studying science to perhaps follow through with this career. Though it’s clear film is where her heart is. “A dream of mine is to become like Andrew: write the screenplay and direct the movie, and become a producer also,” she says. “If there’s a future for me in the film industry, I would definitely like to carry on. I’m loving it.”