In the third of a series of interviews with young and mid-career researchers, Eloise Gibson talks to documentary-maker Paul Wolffram about learning to dance in Papua New Guinea and launching a new film school in Wellington.

When Paul Wolffram was studying music in his twenties, he went to remote East New Ireland in Papua New Guinea, where he emerged from the rainforest and asked the Lak people to teach him to dance. After some early puzzlement about their visitor, the Lak people ended up hosting Wolffram for many visits over several years, teaching him their language and dance and ultimately initiating him as a shaman in the Buai tradition, which involved a four-day fast.

“When they came to understand that I was there to learn about their music and dance, they thought it was a great idea, because they really value their music and dance as a way of connecting with other people and that’s what they saw me doing as well,” he says.

After 15 years of regular visits, “the next natural step for them and me was to initiate into this shaman practice … opening yourself up to this magical thinking is quite different to the way we think in our culture,” he says.

Despite his long familiarity with the Lak people’s culture it wasn’t Wolffram’s own culture – yet he was the one telling their stories. He made two documentaries in Papua New Guinea, What Lies That Way and Stori Tumbuna: Ancestors’ Tales. (Wolffram also made a New Zealand documentary, Voices of the Land: Ngā Reo O Te Whenua featuring musicians Richard Nunns and Horomona Horo using taonga pūoro or traditional Māori instruments.)

Now Wolffram is using his documentary-making experience to launch the new Miramar Creative Centre in Wellington, where students will learn film-making, digital effects and composing in the same neighbourhood as production companies such as Weta Digital.

What will he tell his film students about navigating the process of documenting other people’s cultures?

“It’s something I’ve spent my career doing … working across cultures and learning how to tell stories with other people rather than about them,” he says. “It takes time and a long commitment.”

“If you’re lucky enough, and if you’re given the opportunity by the people you’re working with, some beautiful weaving can be done between the way that we tell stories and the way that other cultures tell stories.”

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