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Joe Leahy’s Neighbours (1988)


Joe Leahy’s Neighbours is the sequel to First Contact (1983) and is the second documentary in The Highlands Trilogy. This well-constructed film traces the fortunes of Joe Leahy, one of the highlander sons of the gold prospector Michael Leahy. Joe was raised in the highlands, worked his way up on coffee plantations, learned from the white colonials and adapted to Western ways. He bought Ganiga land, established a coffee plantation and became wealthy while all around him are his Ganiga neighbours, who live a subsistence existence. Joe understands the highlander protocols and values of sharing wealth and resources but also feels free from tribal obligation. Joe Leahy’s Neighbours explores Joe’s troubled relationships with his employees, members of the Ganiga tribe and the many tribal factions. The film is about new ways versus old and the momentous struggle to adapt to changing circumstances. Joe Leahy’s Neighbours is shot in an observational style with narration, some interviews and excerpts from First Contact (1983).

Curator’s notes

In 1985 Robin Anderson and Bob Connolly received the AFC Documentary Fellowship and this enabled them to go back to PNG to make another film which became the second film in the The Highlands Trilogy. The filmmakers felt that this could be an excellent opportunity to make a contemporary film about the Papua New Guinea highlands and explore what sort of society was forming in the wake of Western contact.

During the making of First Contact (1983), Joe Leahy – one of the sons of Michael Leahy – had acted as a guide and introduced Connolly and Anderson to highlanders who remembered the first Europeans (the three Leahy brothers) coming into the highlands in the 1930s. Joe Leahy wasn’t like any highlander they had met before as he was flamboyant, self-confident and very wealthy.

While Joe was driving them around, he talked about his life on the Kilima coffee plantation and his relationship with the Ganiga tribe who lived all around him and whose land he’d bought to establish the plantation. Joe had been trying to get the Ganiga people onside since he started the coffee plantation. Coffee growing was very lucrative and his 300-acre plantation was flourishing. Joe was bringing in about 1.3 million Australian dollars a year but the Ganiga people still lived a traditional life where there was very little cash coming in.

Connolly and Anderson set up in Mount Hagen in October 1985 thinking they would spend a few months filming around the plantation but ended up building a house on the edge of Joe’s plantation and living in the highlands for 18 months. The filmmakers tried to remain as neutral as they could (which would have been very difficult to do) as they followed the many strands and conflicts in the story.

Joe Leahy’s Neighbours captures the conflict between Joe’s modern business outlook and traditional tribal values of sharing wealth and resources and sets the scene for the third film in the series, Black Harvest (1992).

Joe Leahy’s Neighbours won many awards, including the Australian Film Institute Award for Best Documentary in 1989; the Australian Film Critics Circle prize for Best Documentary in 1989; Festival Cinéma du Réel in Paris, the Grand Prix; Society for Visual Anthropology Award of Excellence; Royal Anthropological Institute, Basil Wright Prize for Best Documentary; Earthwatch Award; and the Festival d’Aurillac, Grand Prix.

Joe Leahy’s Neighbours screened in many film festivals around the world before it was broadcast in Australia on the ABC in 1989 and then in many countries including the US, Canada, UK, France, Germany, Switzerland, Italy and Japan.