Inspiration by the late Professor Futa Helu

On Saturday 4th August 2012, the world premiere of the feature documentary film Tongan Ark took place at the Skycity Theatre, Auckland City. The theatre seats 700 people and the tickets to this event sold out before the screening date. It was a huge success! I had the pleasure in attending this event with just over 40 of my family members and friends. We thoroughly enjoyed the film and the heart-warming live Tongan performances by Helu’s family, students and ex-students of ‘Atenisi which followed.

Tongan Ark’s film director Paul Janman and his wife, the film producer, Echo Janman, presented a profoundly moving tribute to the late Professor Futa Helu and for ‘Atenisi, the private university that Helu founded in Tonga in the 1960’s. I had the honour of meeting both Paul and Echo in the lead up to the premiere and thereafter. They are such a wonderful couple! From Janman’s film, I found Helu to be a pioneer in his endeavour to preserve and celebrate the Tongan arts within the establishment of ‘Atenisi. He challenged the thought processes and systems of beliefs embedded within the heart of the Tongan community and Tongan polity. Despite conflict and financial hardships, ‘Atenisi has seen graduates lead successful lives within and outside of Tonga. Helu was a man of valour. He was a bold intellectual. He was a fearless visionary. What an inspiration! I never had the chance to meet him in person prior to his passing in 2010. However,  my parents and I were blessed to have met his daughter, Sisi’uno Helu, in the lead up to the world premiere of Tongan Ark. She is a beautiful and humble woman. With the help of family and colleagues, Sisi’uno Helu will continue her father’s legacy.

A synopsis of the documentary film Tongan Ark states: “Paul Janman’s film Tongan Ark is a portrait of ‘Atenisi, the private university Helu created in a swamp on the edge of Tonga’s capital city Nuku’alofa in the 1960s. Helu believed that European and Polynesian cultures needed to learn and borrow from one another, and the staff of ‘Atenisi put his ideas into practice by offering courses in grand opera and English literature as well as traditional Tongan music and dance. ‘Atenisi is the Tongan word for Athens, and Helu wanted to emulate ancient Greek philosophers like Socrates by promoting reasoned and open debate, even when such debate touched on controversial political issues.

Although it has always struggled for funding and resources, ‘Atenisi has had a huge influence on Tonga and on the wider Pacific region. Because of its emphasis on freedom of thought, ‘Atenisi was the cradle of the pro-democracy movement which swept Tonga in the nineties and noughties. Many of the school’s graduates have enjoyed distinguished careers inside and outside Tonga.  

Tongan Ark shows the joys and tribulations of ‘Atenisi’s staff and students, as they celebrate learning and battle against poverty and political persecution. The film ends by showing Helu’s funeral in 2010, and by noting the determination of his colleagues to keep ‘Atenisi open” (Tongan Ark Film).

Here is the trailer for the film Tongan Ark:

The Tongan Ark world premiere also saw the launch of a publication by the late Professor Futa Helu entitled On Tongan Poetry. Scott Hamilton, a New Zealand scholar and poet, provides the introduction and afterword for this particular book thus shedding light onto Helu’s extensive works. This book compiles six essays that Helu had written in the 1980’s. The book is accompanied by a DVD of an informative interview that was conducted by Tongan Ark’s Film Director Paul Janman with the late Professor Futa Helu in 2006. My Father had purchased a copy of this book and DVD for me last night at the premiere and in my excitement, I managed to read the book and watch the DVD today.

Published by Atuanui Press with the support of Creative New Zealand, On Tongan Poetry offers Futa Helu’s insight into the classification of Tongan poetry based on the consideration of some of its general compositions in relation to English poetry.  Helu discusses and illustrates how Tongan poetry is generally constructed, how it can be divided chronologically into ancient and modern periods. In addition, Helu delves into the intricacies of Tongan poetry, dance and music and how the unity of the three existed especially in the art of ancient Tonga. Tongan poetry is included in this book with English translations as he analyses each piece to make sense of the general trend of ideas and thoughts embedded in it. There is so much more to this book. You would have to purchase a copy and see for youself. 🙂 The book and DVD both have given me a deeper understanding of Tongan poetry and its historical beginnings. It is a priceless book and DVD to have in hand. I highly recommend it!

Paul and Echo Janman, Sisi’uno Helu and the Helu family, the students and ex-students of ‘Atenisi would have made the late Professor Futa Helu extremely proud at the world premiere of the feature documentary film Tongan Ark. The late Professor Futa Helu was an incredible man and I truly believe that his legacy will undoubtedly live on.

On Tongan Poetry by Futa Helu (Book Cover)

On Tongan Poetry can be purchased online on this link here: Atuanui Press

For further information about the documentary film Tongan Ark please visit their facebook page: Tongan Ark Film

Since the Tongan Ark, I have been listening to the Afokoula singers of ‘Atenisi. Here is an audio link where they sing a song that was written by Her Majesty the late Queen Sālote Mafile‘o Pilolevu Tupou III. The song is entitled Hala Kuo Papa which is a Tongan proverb that is widely used in reference to a path that is well traveled so much so that it leaves a visible course for others to follow. This particular proverb, in my eyes, perfectly describes Paul and Echo Janman’s work on Tongan Ark and I also believe that the proverb is also significant in describing the late Professor Futa Helu’s legacy.

Enjoy! 🙂

Reviews on the Tongan Ark:

The Ark Premieres: A dog’s eye-view by Scott Hamilton (NZ Scholar & Poet)

A Sea with 700 Tongans on an unruly, but inspirational Ark by Karen Abplanalp


    1. Absolutely Bill and that’s exactly what the late Professor Futa Helu did and he inspired many along the way despite the obstacles that he faced. Thank you for taking the time to visit my blog. God bless xox

    1. Thank you Jon Appleton for sharing your thoughts. It’s wonderful to read that you had met Futa Helu in 1972! That is amazing! It is also great to find out that you are one of the people who have shared this blog post with others on facebook. Thank you so much! Have a wonderful week. God bless xox

  1. Malo aupito Maryanne. It was a pleasure to meet you and please feel free to come and talk further about Futa, ‘Atenisi and all things poetic!

    1. Hi Paul Janman, Wow! What an honour to have you read and comment on this blog post! A pleasant surprise indeed! Thanks for reading this post and for also leaving your comment. It was an honour for me to meet you and your wife Echo. You both have definitely put a lot of heart and soul into this film and I applaud you both! I will definitely visit you to talk more about Futa, ‘Atenisi and all things poetic. May God continue to bless you and Echo abundantly in all your future endeavours. Enjoy the rest of the week and best wishes for the screening of Tongan Ark this Friday in Wellington! Safe travels to you and the crew! ‘Ofa atu xox

  2. Hi. A good comment on Tongan Ark and Futa Helu. I was skeptical of Atenisi etc until Scott got me to watch Paul’s film. Very interesting. Some fascinating developments and Helu was certainly an enigmatic but deep individual of wide interests, who was nevertheless still “inside” society. You have a good blog here! Best of luck with your project to publish! Kind regards, Richard.

    1. Hi Richard Taylor, it is an honour to hear from you. I found out that you are a published NZ poet. Wow! It’s great to also read that Scott Hamilton got you to watch Paul Janman’s film. I have gathered that you three are friends/colleagues? That is awesome! Thank you for taking the time to read this post and to also leave your thoughts. I appreciate your kind words and encouragement. Whether I publish my first collection of poetry or not remains a mystery but I am content at this stage of my life to keep writing poems. One day I hope to write poetry well, just as you do. Have a fab week. God bless xox

  3. I am a student currently studying at the Trinity Theological College and I have just finished a class in reading the Bible in Oceania. I am in the midst of reading materials by Dr Sione Havea and Dr Nasili Vakauta also Maafu Palu. I have just issued a book by ‘I.F. Helu on Critical Essays: Cultural Perspective from the South Seas. Our Oceanic scholars have a lot of knowledge and vast experience throughout their life’s journeys to share with us young people of Oceania. Like the navigators whom sailed the seas before our time we ought to talanoa through our oral traditions. Ofa atu moe lotu

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