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Death of Chris Owen – esteemed maker of films about PNG

Chris Owen (Andrew Pike)
Chris Owen (Andrew Pike)

Chris Owen - the veteran filmmaker best known for his PNG documentaries - died this month. PROFESSOR DON NILES provided this citation at a Lifetime Achievement Award made to the film maker last year

CANBERRA - For his films on Papua New Guinea over more than three and a half decades, Chris Owen has been awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Society for Visual Anthropology.

This took place at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) held recently in Washington, DC.

The Society for Visual Anthropology was founded in 1984 as a section of the AAA to promote the use of images for the description, analysis, communication, and interpretation of human behaviour.

Its Lifetime Achievement Award is given to individuals whose body of work is recognized for its exemplary impact on the field of anthropology. Chris is only the ninth person to receive such an honour.

Chris Owen’s award acknowledges his outstanding films on PNG traditional and contemporary culture. Ceremonies were held on 29 November and 1 December.

While ill health prevented him from being present, colleagues, friends, and admirers of his work spoke on his behalf and saw a video thank-you message from Chris filmed at his home in Canberra, as well as highlights he selected from some of his documentaries.

Chris was born in Birmingham, UK, in 1944 and was educated in both the UK and Australia, in particular at the Birmingham College of Art and Design, where he received a graduate diploma in visual communication.

Chris Owen with an Enga man during the filming of Tighten The Drums in 1974
Chris Owen with an Enga man when filming 'Tighten The Drums' in 1974

He moved to Papua New Guinea in 1973, initially employed as cinematographer by the Tourist Board, but joining the Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies as resident filmmaker in 1976.

He was tasked with designing and initiating an ethnographic filmmaking programme that documented and preserved PNG cultures on film, and providing professional training for PNG filmmakers. He would be devoted to these tasks until his retirement in 2010.

In 2000 Chris became the head and later the director of the National Film Institute (formerly, Skul bilong Wokim Piksa) in Goroka, where he rebuilt the institution and its functions after it was destroyed by fire in 1996.

At the time of his retirement, he had spent 37 years working at PNG government institutions, 34 of those years at bodies under what is today called the National Cultural Commission.

Chris Owen’s many years of productivity, dedication, and commitment to the people of PNG have resulted in an extraordinary rich and prolific output. Many of his films document spectacular aspects of traditional culture, such as The Red Bowmen, Malangan Labadama, and Bridewealth for a Goddess.

Other films focus on the ways individuals and groups have found to deal with potential conflicts between traditional and modern value systems, such as Man without Pigs, Gogodala—A Cultural Revival?, and Betelnut Bisnis.

Chris directed one of the best known and most widely seen PNG contemporary dramas written for the screen, Tukana—Husat i Asua? He has also focussed on developmental issues and initiatives, such as Ramu Pawa, Re-Forestation Naturally, and the two films in the Real Options series.

Chris’s films have been shown at film festivals in Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Cyprus, France, India, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Papua New Guinea, Russia, UK, USA, and Uzbekistan, and have received countless international awards.

His films have also been shown on television in countries such as Australia, Brazil, Germany, Japan, and Thailand, as well as PNG. They are used as course materials at numerous universities and museums in the US, Australia, and France.

Chris Owen receives Order of Logohu medal from Sir Charles Lepani  PNG  High Commissioner to Australia  2012 (Andrew Pike)
Chris Owen receives the Order of Logohu from Sir Charles Lepani,  PNG High Commissioner to Australia, in  2012 (Andrew Pike)

While Chris is the filmmaker of least 16 films, he is credited in more than 33 others with various roles in the filmmaking process. Indeed, Andrew Pike, film historian and managing director of Ronin Films has noted that Chris ‘has contributed directly or indirectly to almost every significant documentary made in Papua New Guinea over the last three decades—whether as director, cinematographer, editor, or as adviser and trouble-shooter’ .

Chris has always been dedicated to teaching others about making films and has been eager to share his passion about filmmaking. Within PNG, such work has seen collaborations with Michelle Baru, Robert Buleka, John Himugu, Baik Johnston, Leonnie Kanawi, Ruth Ketau, Martin Maden, and Ignatius Talania, amongst others.

One of these collaborators, PNG filmmaker Martin Maden, has commented, “I do not know of one other culture whose children will inherit a film heritage such as the one Chris Owen has given to the people of Papua New Guinea”. Maden further observed that Chris ‘is seen by some of us as the greatest documentary cinematographer ever’.

Chris received PNG’s 10th Anniversary of Independence medal in 1985, and was made an Officer of the Order of Logohu (OL) in 2010. PNG joins the rest of the world in congratulating Chris on his well-deserved recognition from the Society for Visual Anthropology. We must also thank him for his unending commitment to our country and its peoples, and for contributing such a magnificent legacy in film.


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Gabriel Ramoi

Another great storyteller of PNG contemporary history now gone. It remains to be seen if the students he mentored at Skul bilong wokim piksa at Goroka will rise up to fill the void left by him. RIP Chris Owen my friend, bamahuta.

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