Black Harvest: Warfare and its consequences

Black Harvest: Warfare and its consequences
WARNING: This clip contains human suffering or death
WARNING: This clip contains violence
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In a wide shot, many highlanders are chanting and running through the grass with spears. Joe sits at home looking distraught. The Ganiga return to the village and attend to a wounded man. They can’t take him to the hospital because doctors are not allowed to treat injuries caused by tribal warfare (unless they pay $100 which is impossible for most Ganiga). Summary by Pat Fiske.

This is very dramatic footage of the highlanders’ warfare. The Ganiga joined their allied tribe to fight their common enemies. The filmmakers are in there filming with them up close as arrows fly through the air and the men attack. As time went on, the fighting spread and became one of the worst tribal wars in post-independence PNG history. For the first time, modern military weapons were in use.

Footage later in the film of the fighting is more distant because of the danger perceived by the filmmakers. There were times when Connolly would leave the four-wheel drive on the road facing away from the turmoil with the engine running and the doors open, so he and Robin Anderson could make a quick escape when they needed to. When only traditional weapons were used there were far fewer casualties and the tribal leaders could sit down and negotiate compensation and an end to the conflict, but this all changed.


Black Harvest synopsis

By late 1989, filmmakers Robin Anderson and Bob Connolly were ready to go back to the PNG highlands to make the third film in the Highlands Trilogy, Black Harvest. This film follows First Contact (1983) and Joe Leahy’s Neighbours (1988) and continues to explore the relationship between Joe, who is now a ‘tribal leader’, and his Ganiga neighbours. Kaugum, the coffee plantation Joe Leahy owns jointly with the Ganiga, is coming on stream and all Joe’s promises of wealth for the Ganiga should be coming to fruition. Then the price of coffee suddenly plunges internationally which means that the Ganiga will have to work on the plantation for low wages. And at the same time, tribal warfare erupts which keeps the Ganiga away from the plantation. What could have been a golden opportunity unravels in a spectacular way. It is an epic struggle between PNG tribal culture and Western capitalism. Black Harvest is shot in an observational style with some narration, interviews and footage from First Contact (1983) and Joe Leahy’s Neighbours (1988).


Black Harvest curator's notes

When they finished shooting Joe Leahy’s Neighbours (1988) in 1987, Anderson and Connolly had planned to return when the joint venture between Joe Leahy and the Ganiga’s 300-acre coffee plantation, Kaugum, was ripe for the pickings and Joe’s promises of riches would start eventuating. Coffee was one of the most lucrative crops in the world and Joe had become a millionaire from Kilima, his first coffee plantation on land he bought from the Ganiga. Kaugum’s overheads were relatively small and the Ganiga were going to come into a massive amount of wealth. The filmmakers were interested in what was going to happen – how that wealth was going to be distributed and what the people would do with it.

When coffee prices internationally plunged the filmmakers had to change their ideas for the film altogether, responding to events as they unfolded. The story strands weave seamlessly together while the frustration and tension build to an almighty crescendo of hopes and dreams splitting asunder.

Bob Connolly states in an interview on the DVD, ‘We were witness to a Greek tragedy of quite extraordinary dimensions. On top of a sense of trepidation, there is what I would like to call a fearful elation. There is a sense as a professional, as an observer, that you are witness to quite a profound series of human events. Perhaps it is a small stage involving these people in an insignificant part of the world but, nevertheless, we were witnesses to an extraordinary tragedy’.

Black Harvest won many awards, including the 1992 Australian Film Institute, Australian Film Critics Circle and Sydney Film Festival Awards for Best Documentary; Festival Cinéma du Réel in Paris, the Grand Prix; Society for Visual Anthropology Award of Excellence; Royal Anthropological Institute, Basil Wright Prize for Best Documentary; Earthwatch Award; Festival d’Aurillac, Grand Prix; Hawaiian, Vancouver and San Francisco Film Festival Awards for Best Documentary; Los Angeles Association of Film Critics prize for Best Documentary; and the Yamagata International Documentary Festival, Robert Flaherty Grand Prize.

Bob Connolly also wrote a riveting and surprisingly honest account of their experiences while shooting this film. The book is called Making ‘Black Harvest’ – Warfare, Filmmaking and Living Dangerously in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea (2005, ABC Books). It won the 2005 Walkley Award for a non-fiction book.

Black Harvest screened in many film festivals around the world before it was broadcast in Australia on the ABC in 1992 and in other countries including the US, Canada, UK, France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy and Japan.

Notes by Pat Fiske


Education notes

The clip shows fighting between two groups in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea (PNG) and the treatment of wounds arising from the conflict. Large numbers of warriors swarm over the mountainside, chanting and shouting. Fighting with bows and arrows and spears ensues, contrasted with an image of an anxious Joe Leahy sitting on his verandah. The last part of the clip shows the men returning after battle and the treatment of two wounded men. An arrowhead is partly removed from the forehead of one of the men. There is no commentary. Subtitles are used.

Educational value points

  • Firsthand footage of warfare and the resulting casualties provides confronting images of what war means for the participants. Men are engaged in close hand-to-hand fighting in which the bowmen protect the warriors with spears and enable them to attack. Men with clearly painful and serious wounds are not treated in hospital due to a police strategy to stop tribal warfare by having hospitals charge 100 kina to treat war wounds, a prohibitive amount for PNG Highlanders with little access to cash.
  • Traditional medical treatment is shown in graphic detail, with focus on the methods used to remove arrowheads and cope with pain. One man tries to remove an arrowhead from another man’s head by gripping the end with his teeth and pulling. The point remains inside. A traditional ‘fight doctor’ sharpens bamboo knives with an axe to probe for a broken arrowhead in a man’s leg. The man is held down and given wood to bite on. Many men treated in the ways depicted later develop fatal infections.
  • Returning after the battle the Ganiga leaders carry guns rather than the traditional bows, arrows and spears otherwise shown in this clip. When only traditional weapons were used there were far fewer casualties as the tribal leaders would call a halt and sit down and negotiate. This particular conflict escalated to become one of the worst tribal wars in post-independence Papua New Guinea. It lasted years and caused many casualties.
  • The documentation of warfare and the graphic depictions of the outcomes of the violence are made possible by the presence of the filmmakers – Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson – in the midst of the action. The noise and jerkiness of the camerawork indicates the volatile situation. The view through long grasses suggests the filmmakers’ attempt to stay out of trouble, but the camera is clearly very close to some of the running men, and Connolly and Anderson were in danger.
  • The image of a lone and anxious Joe Leahy on his verandah, apart from the conflict, indicates his difficult position in the area where he lives and works – a major focus of the film. The conflict erupted when the Ganiga responded to a call by allies from a neighbouring tribe. It meant that the men were not available to harvest the first full coffee crop they shared with Leahy. Moreover, the conflict occurred at the same time as a disastrous fall in world coffee prices,
  • Traditional PNG Highland warfare as shown in this clip arises as a way of solving problems when negotiations have broken down. The clan raises support from its allies and goes into battle until leaders call a halt and begin to negotiate again. Warfare is used to resolve or maintain conflicts that arise between clans and alliances of clans. Disputes over land or failure to settle compensation claims after offences such as theft or murder commonly lead to warfare.

Education notes provided by The Learning Federation and Education Services Australia

Production company:
Arundel Productions
Bob Connolly, Robin Anderson
Associate Producer:
Chris Owen
Bob Connolly, Robin Anderson
Made in association with The Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies and with the assistance of the Australian Film Commission