Indigenous media as a form of social change 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 as part of my studies earlier this year, and to make connections with the subject of this blog; 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

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  1. David, you have written a very interesting post about the film Tanna, and I am also intrigued to see this film myself, especially to see if it fulfills what it sets out to do. Reading a bit more about the film in the Sydney Morning Herald, I find it very encouraging to know that they have casted real tribe members from the Yakel tribe to act in the film and that they speak their native language, which suggests that the storytelling will most probably honor the indigenous culture and traditions of the tribe rather than falling into stereotypical misrepresentations of indigenous cultures. It also seems as the directors has put a lot of effort on telling the tribe’s “real” story rather than telling the tribe’s story from the director’s point of view.

    While the interest for indigenous media seems to increase, I believe that there is a necessity to produce more, especially with more participation of indigenous people behind the scenes. I have understood that the filmmakers of the movie are Australian and not indigenous, do you believe that this might restrict portrayals of the characters in any way? What does the literature say about this?

    Similar to you, I also find art activism an interesting genre to explore further and it is specifically fascinating to see what part indigenous media can play in breaking existing inequalities and misrepresentation of indigenous people within the dominant media culture, which Dowell underlines as tremendously important. Indigenous media can indeed be an important force for social change, and I agree with you that it may especially “challenge normative perspectives”. Comparing Tanna with the case of “The Land Has Eyes”, where the Rotuman people are portrayed, adds further depth to your discussion about how indigenous media can be a form of social change activism, and it is great to see that your blogpost about the film has already started to stir up some discussions in the Forum Solomon Islands International. I guess one shall never underestimate the power of social media!

    You have also used interesting literary sources, which I enjoyed looking further into. They support your arguments of why these types of films might be relevant for our theme.

    Thanks for an interesting post and I am looking forward to reading your next one.


  2. Christos Mavraganis

    Thank you David for a very, very interesting post. Just the fact that you are referring to notions such as art activism, indigenous media, representation of the reality, participation of the locals, to name a few, makes this read intriguing from the beginning.
    You mention in the beginning that the film promises “authentic representation of island life portrayed with rich and entertaining drama” and this is the first very important factor of your post. Your input of Kristina Dowell’s thinking on the representation of indigenous practices and culture fits perfectly to what you say afterwards about the reactions of the Rotuman audience after watching “The Land Has Eyes”. Another useful input here would be what David Lewis underlines while exploring the contact points between development, media and representation. He says that “…representation can be taken to refer to the way that art, literature and media are transformative, not so much mirroring reality but instead ‘representing’ it according to conscious or unconscious conventions” (Lewis, 2013, p. 4). You’ve said that the story of those people was expressed by their “own voice” and this is a crucial actor regarding to representation. This film does not just mirror their reality, as Lewis suggests, but it works as a representation of it, offering a great opportunity for the cultural self-awareness to be creative.
    Another very interesting factor that you’ve raised, is that of the new spaces for participation in activism that are opening up, with the use of the new media tools. The scenery is now extremely different and the most important reason is that anyone can start a revolution. In Michael Mandiberg’s “The Social Media reader”, there is a powerful chapter written by Jay Rosen. In “The people formerly known as the audience”, the author sends a clear message to the “media people” to inform them of the existence of those who were -before the new media- known as the audience. His writing is stunning and he explains that the audience is no longer just… waiting to receive any kind of information, but they take action! He cites that “a highly centralized media system had connected people “up” to big social agencies and centers of power but not “across” to each other. Now the horizontal flow, citizen-to-citizen, is as real and consequential as the vertical one” (Jay Rosen in Mandiberg, 2012, p. 14). The closing sentence of this chapter seems like a message of war to the media people: “The people formerly known as the audience are simply the public made realer, less fictional, more able, less predictable. You should welcome that, media people. But whether you do or not, we want you to know we’re here” (Jay Rosen in Mandiberg, 2012, p. 15) and this is exactly what you perfectly described here: “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”.
    Finally, the ‘Facebook experiment’ you did was also very interesting, especially regarding to the Maori TV documentary “Mystery of the Lost Waka”. In my latest post, I presented how the New Zealand government has created “The Māori Development Fund”, as an attempt to preserve the culture and the language of the Māori people. Some of the projects of this Fund are in the direction of improving digital literacy, or about scholarships to encourage Maori to study ICT and even programmes aimed at increasing the use of ICT by Maori businesses. Similarly to your case study, the new media world is used here so that a very historical culture doesn’t become past.
    In the video that you enabled to your post, Jimmy Joseph Nako, a tribe member sends an extremely powerful message to everyone who will watch the film and he is using only two words: “We exist”. He is saying that even though they live in a very small island, “we exist. What can you learn from us?”. You wrote a really great post which proves that indigenous media can undoubtedly be a form of social change activism. Also, your interesting literature choices made me interested to explore them!
    Congratulations David,


    Lewis, D., Rodgers, D., Woolcock, M. 2013: Popular Representations of Development: Insights from Novels, Films, Television and Social Media, London: Routledge.

    Mandiberg, M. 2012: The Social Media Reader, New York, NY: NYU Press.