Well, I never. In around 75 minutes, Dr Paul Dwyer reinvents theatre. That would be something, were he an actor or director. But first and, I think, foremost, he’s an academic. A PhD from Sydney University. In around 75 minutes, he delivers a poignant, personal, affecting and detailed history of Australia’s involvement with PNG, with particular respect, as the title implies to Bougainville.
He’s a pedantic man. His speech is precise. His words, chosen carefully. He looks and speaks like a gentle, caring, nerdy missionary: think Father Mulcahy, from M*A*S*H. His props and aids are archived and ordered with the discipline of a curator or taxonomist. He handles, or caresses, everything as if it were precious. Like facts. And people. His family must be as retentive as he, for he’s pulled all manner of treasures from his parents’ attic: old letters, photos and more, all of which seem to have been meticulously and lovingly cared for.
What you will see and hear is a slightly haphazard history of the impact of the massive Panguna copper mine, a joint venture between the private and public sectors and a cynical act of colonialism of the worst kind, requiring virtual theft of land from people who probably wouldn’t have chosen to sell it at any price, let alone the pathetic amounts for which they were forced to settle.
Of course, it’s a long and complex story and I’m oversimplifying, taking poetic licence, in deference to communicating the gist of the work. And that’s the beauty of it: like a good doco, it seeks to pique one’s interest and motivate one to dive headlong into a sea of facts and fictions, in the hope of coming up for air with a fistful of truth.
Dwyer brings together the personal and political. Around the same time as the copper-mine was being dug and the Australian government got busy with a Riefenstahl-style propaganda campaign to try and persuade the Bougainvilleans a dirty, big hole in the ground of their verdant paradise was a beautiful thing, Dwyer’s prominent father, Allan, was knee-deep in pro bono work in the region, as an orthopedic surgeon. So, even while learning of the environmental havoc wreaked, we also learn how to perform delicate surgery: there are as many sidetracks as there likely are through the tropical jungle between villages. While Dwyer senior was restoring the limbs and lives of dozens of kids, the Bougainvillean resistance was rising and being crushed by covertly Australian-backed helicopter gunships supplied to the PNGDF.
And one might leap to the conclusion such things could only happen in, say, the ‘mow the bastards down’ Askin era, it was still being denied right through the Hawke and Keating years; a real kick in the teeth for true believers. What’s left, that’s true, to believe in?
And while this might all sound as intractably heavygoing as the earthmoving equipment at the mine, Dwyer peppers the salted wounds with a very light touch, surprising with anecdotes by torchlight and campfire tribal songs (and he’s quite a singer). He also spends a good deal of the time speaking in very fluent pidgin which, by the end, you feel you understand.
While Dwyer the younger can’t repair limbs, he’s been going out on them for some years, with numerous trips to Bougainville, seeking to assist in postwar (20,000 perished) reconciliation operations.
It’s an education our media and politicians failed to give us. And a profound lesson in humanity. Not to mention highly-engaging theatre. People like Paul Dwyer can and do change the world for the better. The even better news is all people can be like Paul Dwyer. We can write better scripts.
The details: The Bougainville Photoplay Project plays the Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir Street until November 28. Tickets on the Belvoir website.