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Bridewealth for a Goddess (1999)


Bridewealth for a Goddess follows the preparation and performance of a sacred ritual by the Kawelka people, who live on their tribal land near Mount Hagen in the Wahgi Valley in Papua New Guinea. Ru Kundil, a ‘Big Man’, is the main protagonist and tells his own story.

His clan has problems with infant mortality and makes the decision to return to previously abandoned tribal territories. The arrival, through a dream, of an ancient female spirit, the Amb Kor, convinces Ru that in order to regain the clan’s health and former strength, an ancient ritual must be performed for the Goddess. Amb Kor tends to the fertility of the clan’s pigs and ensures the women have many male children as well as blessing the people with prosperity. Ru involves his family and supporters in the ritual in which the men seek to make a ‘marriage’ with the Goddess. His ability to pull this off successfully will secure his position as leader. This particular ritual took years just to prepare and many more for the whole ceremony to be completed.

Filmmaker Chris Owen worked with social anthropologist Professor Andrew Strathern and anthropological consultants Joseph Ketau and Ru Kundil in documenting this important event. Bridewealth for a Goddess is an ethnographic film and uses observational footage, interviews and voice-over. Written information is displayed on the screen to clarify what is happening, who is speaking and to describe the complex clan and tribal relationships.

Curator’s notes

Due to changing cultural practices, opposition from the Christian churches and the cost and time it takes to perform, the Amb Kor ritual may never be witnessed again. Both filmmaker Owens and anthropologist Strathern were participant-observers during a time of pivotal change for the clans of the Kawelka tribal group. Bridewealth for a Goddess is an extraordinary record of this significant ritual that may now only be able to be seen, albeit in a very condensed form, through this film.

Chris Owen is an Australian filmmaker who has lived and worked in New Guinea for over 35 years. He has an impressive reputation for his own films and for the significant role he has played in the creation of most documentaries about New Guinea. He started an ethnographic film unit within the Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies in 1976.

Professor Andrew Strathern has carried out long-term fieldwork in PNG. He met Ru Kundil in early 1964 when he went to do research in Mabuk, which was one of the settlement places of the Kawelka tribe after they were driven out by warfare in pre-colonial times. After being appointed Director of the Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies in 1981, Strathern proposed that he and Owen research and work on a film in one of Strathern’s field locations at Kuk, among the Kawelka in the Melpa language-area near Mount Hagen. Strathern introduced Owen to Ru Kundil and the film evolved from this meeting.

Ru’s extended family constructed a bush house for Owen and his Papuan sound recordist, Lahui Geita, and they lived there for periods of time documenting the spirit cult performance, Amb Kor. Strathern would visit them there occasionally in the lead-up to the main ceremonies. After Owen and Geita concluded location filming, the project was shelved for some years due to lack of funds and other project commitments. When a new director, Dr Jacob Simet, was appointed to the National Cultural Commission, he made completion funds available but it was now many years after the event. By that time, Strathern had left PNG and had no involvement with the film in post-production.

In Papua New Guinea dreams are treated seriously. According to many Papua New Guineans, dreams can allow people to communicate with their dead ancestors, spirits and deities. Ru has had two dreams where the spirit goddess, Amb Kor, visited him. The first dream he dismissed and later felt his people had paid dearly for it. The second time he was determined to do the right thing and go through organising the very complex and expensive ritual (see clip one).

Although it’s clear while watching the film that the ritual for Amb Kor has taken quite a bit of time, it’s not until the end that the film indicates that it has actually taken 14 years. There is much preparation before the Amb Kor ritual so that when it finally starts one half-hour into the film, it’s a relief. The ritual experts play a key role in guiding all the people involved through the cult. They conduct the process and the practice of each stage (see clip two).

The headdress plume decorations that the men wear during this ceremony are very particularly prescribed and strictly adhered to. The colours relate to the two houses into which the men are separated. The two groups sit, listen and perform in two definite lines (clip three). When Ru is painted up and opens a beer with his teeth and proceeds to drink, it’s a shock that brings the viewer abruptly into the present. In the midst of thousands of people, the film culminates in a vigorous ceremonial dance and the convoluted mass distribution of the sacred pork. Bridewealth for a Goddess is a remarkable record of a ritual that may never be repeated.

Bridewealth for a Goddess won the Grand Prix Nanook at the Bilan du Film Ethnographique in Paris, 2000, and the Award for Excellence at the American Anthropological Association Film and Video Festival in 2001. It has screened at the National Museum of Ethnology’s 'Ethnography and the Rise of Cinema’ event in Japan, 2000; Mostra Internacional do Filme Etnográfico, Brazil, 2000; Royal Anthropological Institute at the International Festival of Ethnographic Film, London, 2000; Göttingen International Ethnographic Film Festival, 2002; and Religion Today, International Festival of Cinema and Religion, Italy, 2002.