Avatar’s secret history lesson on our doorstep

Despite selling out every night it screens at the cinema on Courtney Place and becoming the highest grossing film of all time, few have picked up on Avatar’s blatant allusions to the historical drama of Bougainville that happened on New Zealand’s doorstep thirteen years ago. The films names, plot and characters are almost direct references to the 1997 Bougainville crisis yet no one seems to have drawn the dots between science fiction and south Pacific fact. Until now.

Many people will be familiar with the story of Avatar. The story opens one hundred and fifty years in the future. A human mining corporation, RDA, has come five light years from Earth to the ecologically pristine jungle wilderness of the planet Pandora to mine the mineral unobtanium. The richest deposits of unobtanium lie buried deep within the ground of Pandora and directly below the home of an alien race known as the Na’vi. Jake Sully, an ex-United States marine turned mercenary, is sent out to spy on the aliens by controlling a genetically engineered avatar. The security commander of the RDA, Colonel Miles Quaritch, encourages Sully to win the trust of the Na’vi and entice them to relocate away from their home in a giant tree, so the RDA can mine the unobtanium.

Before Sully is able to persuade the Na’vi to leave Hometree, Colonel Quaritch attacks Hometree and destroys it. Sully (in Avatar form) and a crew of RDA scientists mutiny and join the Na’vi in their struggle to rid Pandora of the RDA. The endgame battle revolves around the Na’vi defending the sacred tree of souls and the vital connection it provides to their races culture, memories and the Pandoran equivalent of earth goddess Gaia. By the end of the film the RDA are defeated and in one of the closing scenes Sully and armed Na’vi watch over a column of sullen RDA miners and their mercenaries as they are forcibly put aboard a space shuttle destined for earth.

The events that inspired Avatar writer and producer James Cameron can only have been the long guerrilla war that scarred the small south Pacific island of Bougainville for a decade between 1988 and 1998. The armed revolt began in 1988 when a group of indigenous rebels stole explosives and sabotaged the electricity supply to the environmentally destructive Panguna copper and gold mine, opened in 1964 and controlled by the CRA, an Australian subsidy of UK mining giant Rio Tinto. The Panguna mine was opened on land stolen from the Nasioi tribe and tailings were dumped in a nearby river, eliminating aquatic life and forcing 800 tribespeople to lose their land.

For a decade the Pacific conflict festered between the eco-guerrilla Bougainville Revolutionary Army and the ill-disciplined Papua New Guinea Defence Force. The conflict caused the deaths of between 10,000 and 20,000 Bougainvilleans, as Australian supplied gunships strafed rebel camps and civilian villages and a tight blockade left the islanders often without food or medical supplies and allowed malaria and tuberculosis to spread with impunity. The end of the conflict came in 1997 when the Papua New Guinea (PNG) government hired Sandline International, a British mercenary outfit led by former British Army Colonel Tim Spicer, to destroy the Bougainville Revolutionary Army. Sandline and the PNG government signed a secret US$36 million contract for Sandline to provide a military solution to the Bougainville crisis that would see Sandline supply new helicopter gunships and troopships and using a mixed mercenary and PNGDF strike force, overwhelm the BRA. However, as Spicer’s mercenaries landed in PNG and began training the PNGDF in preparation for the assault on Bougainville to reopen Panguna, the Weekend Australian journalist Mary-Louise O’Callaghan broke the story, precipitating a diplomatic crisis between PNG and Australia and widespread disgust from PNG civil society.

In the wake of Callaghan’s expose the commander of the PNGDF, Jerry Singirok, led an army coup to force the Government to cancel the contract, step aside and call new elections. Singirok went on national radio to tell the country he could not allow the Government to send foreign mercenaries armed with high-powered rocket launchers to murder in Bougainville and then disarmed the Sandline mercenaries and imprisoned Spicer. As the crisis grew and student protests in Port Moresby escalated the Government reluctantly resigned and the Sandline soldiers were deported. In 1998 a New Zealand-brokered ceasefire was negotiated and eventually the Autonomous Bougainville Government established. The Panguna mine remains closed and in the hands of the indigenous landowners yet foreign corporate interest in reopening the mine continues.

Cameron’s plot is almost a direct adaptation of the Bougainville crisis with only the most minor adjustments. The full scale attack on Hometree in Avatar is a fair estimation of the havoc that Spicer’s proposed gunship assault to open Panguna would have had on the Nasioi tribe. In the climactic battle Jake Sully leads an alliance of Na’vi tribes aided by an uprising of Pandoran wildlife sent by their planets goddess of life, Eywa. Sully then lands on the back of the RDA space-shuttle turned carpet-bomber and uses a grenade to spin it off its flight path, thus preventing it from destroying the sacred tree of souls. The scenario nicely symbolises how Jerry Singirok’s coup blew apart the Governments plan to rain death and destruction over Bougainville, in tandem with student and union protests escalating into anti-Government riots and a Parliamentary siege. This uprising eventually forced Sandline to divert the flight-plan of the world’s largest cargo plane, filled with grenade launchers, mortars and ammunition. The Prime Minister Sir Julius Chan resigned and the mercenaries were forced to land their deadly payload in an Australian air force base instead of in Port Moresby.

In the much discussed blogpost, When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like 'Avatar'? Annalee Newitz makes the argument that the film reinforces racial stereotypes because the white audience can “ignore the fundamental experience of being an oppressed racial group”. What Newitz and other liberal anti-racists fail to appreciate is that the character of Jake Sully and his mutiny against the RDA is not a “white guilt fantasy” but a retelling of the story of Singirok and his army rebelling against their Government. Sully’s mutiny is also a reminder of the power of rank-and-file military desertions and mutinies to end unjust wars. The Vietnam War ground to a halt in the 1970s partly because the US military was in a “state approaching collapse” according to an American army Colonel, as a result of officer killings, widespread drug use, and spiralling desertions. The reality is that over 350,000 US soldiers went AWOL in Vietnam between 1967 and 1972, and that isn’t just a “white guilt fantasy”. Sully should be seen not as a “white guilt fantasy” but as a white guilt fact, he represents a recurring historical figure, seen in soldiers like Singirok and John Riley, the leader of the Irish deserters from the US army in the US Mexican war (1846-8) who formed the St Patricks Battalion and fought for the Mexicans.

Cameron has infused his film Avatar with so many allusions to the Bougainville conflict that it beggars belief that only a few have picked up on it. For example a quick reshuffle and a little transposing of the letters in “Miles Quaritch” and we get something very similar to “I am Tim Spicer”. Coincidentally Cameron was developing the script a good thirteen years ago, the same time as CNN and BBC were broadcasting to the world Singirok’s coup against the Sandline contract.

The story of Bougainville’s bloody eco-revolution, the Sandline crisis and the overthrow of unscrupulous and corrupted PNG politicians by army revolt was always going to make an excellent film. Cameron has done justice to a little-known chapter of history that happened right here in the south Pacific. Yet just last October Rio Tinto’s Bougainville company was exploring with the new Bougainville government the possibility of reopening the Panguna mine. Of course, the indigenous landowners still vehemently oppose the reopening of the mine. The sequel to Avatar may be coming sooner than many predicted. If it does, the Naisoi will need the help of as many Avatar fans as possible to keep their south Pacific “Pandora” free and unspoiled.

Omar Hamed, 8 February 2010


heron said…
Hamed writes that "The conflict caused the deaths of between 10,000 and 20,000 Bougainvilleans".
Mortality figures during civil wars are always difficult to verify, but these estimates are very high indeed. They are 5-10 times higher than the 2,000 noted by the historian Hank Nelson (Letter, Canberra Times, 22 February 2010)in downgrading a figure of 10,000 appearing in that paper.

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