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Pitcairn People, The (1962)

Courtesy of BP Video Library

Main image of Pitcairn People, The (1962)
35mm, 26 min, colour
DirectorPeter Newington
Production CompanyWorld Wide Pictures
SponsorBritish Petroleum
ProducerJames Carr
ScriptPeter Newington
Commentary WriterJames Cameron
PhotographyJames Allen

Narrator: Patrick Wymark

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A survey of the life of the Pacific islanders and their reaction to modern life.

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Since a globally reported 2004 court case, Pitcairn Island has become indelibly associated with sexual abuse. So any earlier screen portrait of its close-knit community is going to pick up unintended ironies. It is interesting, though, that The Pitcairn People, funded by British Petroleum and made by Britain's busiest sponsored film production company, World Wide Pictures, holds in surprising check the inevitable temptation to romanticise.

The basic facts about the Pitcairn people (that, half-English and half-Tahitian, they are descended from the Bounty mutineers) lend themselves to a common trope in sponsored travelogue: the portentous, quasi-mystical mingling of the present day with a past everywhere evident, as in a mutineer's gravestone. But the vital, balancing component is James Cameron's script, informative but conversationally delivered by Patrick Wymark. Rather neglected today, Cameron was in his time an iconic journalist and commentator, not the least of whose cultural contributions were to journalistic television and sponsored film documentary. Far from idyllic, Cameron's Pitcairn is beset by economic challenges, by boredom and, above all, by remoteness. A scene in which Islanders hear taped messages from relatives long since emigrated to New Zealand is gently affecting. When the film was made, the island's population was still in treble figures; it is now in double ones.

The director, Peter Newington, was that relative rarity, a television documentary-maker - with many BBC arts films already to his name - who occasionally branched out to make sponsored films. He effectively interweaves camera movement, especially of slow tracking shots, with static, dignified compositions of people or landscape, or people against landscape. By way of a structure for this, Newington skilfully takes us through a series of communal set-pieces (the islanders' Advendist service, the men on a goat hunt, the whole community at an evening dance). The one genuinely, if modestly, experimental feature of this largely conventional film is its varied score based upon the Islanders' own music.

Typically, the sponsor's presence is fleeting and reticent enough to slip down easily. A BP ship appears, late in the film, to deliver oil for Pitcairn's new generator. It is made clear that, while philanthropic, this was a small extracurricular gesture bolted on to an already scheduled trip elsewhere. The delivery is done swiftly, without ceremony, and the ship soon on its way, though the logo on the barrels left behind is instantly recognisable.

Patrick Russell

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Video Clips
Complete film (25:44)
Monthly Film Bulletin review
British Petroleum films