Spirits of the Voyage

Review by Tony Gibb
Courtesy of Tok Blong Pasifik Magazine
September/December 1997 Vol. 51 No. 3/4

         Spirits of the Voyage takes us on a journey to a time in the Pacific when traditional methods of navigation meant a reliance on the navigator’s ability to interpret the rhythms of nature and ensure that the spirits were in support of their efforts.  Metzgar’s video takes us to Lamotrek Atoll, in the Federated States of Micronesia.  By intertwining footage of traditional island life and footage from earlier visits in 1987-90, Eric has produced an entrancing look into the ritual of passing on the elder’s knowledge of the spirit world, called  pwo, to a new generation of navigators.  Working closely with Jesus Urupiy, a master navigator from Satawal island who is married to a Lamotrek woman, and his son, Ali Haleyalur, Eric’s video takes us from the land based preparations through sailing into the open waters.  Eric uses special effects to evoke the spirit world of the navigator belief system.

         Viewers used to North American videos will have to slow their pace to match that of a Pacific community where time takes second place to the building of a school, preparation of ceremonial grounds and the consideration given to whether or not the spirits are in the right mood to allow the pwo to begin.  The very naturalness of the villagers’ actions and interactions speak well to the relationship that developed between the cameraman and the people of Lamotrek.

         What the video does not provide is a detailed explanation of the art of traditional navigation.  There is no examination of the abilities of navigators to examine wave patterns as they reflect off distant islands, read the passage of birds from nearby islands and interpret cloud formations.  While these aspects of traditional navigation have been covered in other productions, and Spirits of the Voyage does fill a gap in examining the schooling and spiritual dimensions of the navigator’s world, the viewer can be left thinking that traditional Pacific navigation is largely a matter of communing with spirits.

         This video does capture a dying tradition and that in itself is very important.  In this area of the Pacific, the  pwo  was the lifeblood of a group of islands that relied on the ability to safely navigate across thousands of square miles to arrive safely at one’s destination.  With only a few masters left in an area that once had several hundred respected navigators, we are left with our handheld global positioning systems that will still rely on the spirits to keep them working.

Tony Gibb is a member of the Pacific Peoples Partnership Foundation Board of Directors.


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