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Pacifica: Tales from the South Seas – Episode 1 (1993)


Pacifica: Tales from the South Seas is a 13-part series that tells 35 stories. The compilation covers such diverse subject matter as ships lost at sea, exotic customs, mystery and adventure, historical and contemporary characters, rare animals and more.

Episode one contains three short myths and legends that are dramatised. The three stories told in this episode are very different from one another: 'Twilight of the Gods’, from the Cook Islands, is about the changes that the Christian missionaries brought to the islanders’ way of life in the early 1800s and the strength of the islanders’ traditions; 'Survival at Sea’ is an account of three Kiribati men who go on a short fishing expedition that ends up lasting seven months; and 'The Mermaid Mammal’ from Vanuatu is about a dugong that speaks.

Curator’s notes

Quite a few of the stories in Pacifica: Tales from the South Seas deal with the detrimental effects of the coming of Christian missionaries on Pacific Island cultures. 'Twilight of the Gods’, from the Cook Islands, is one of these. The islanders’ gods are all-powerful and are integral to their traditions and daily lives. When the missionaries come, they convert the islanders and introduce ‘Blue Laws’ which forbid them from practising their age-old customs.

Dancing was a very important ritual for the Cook Islanders and integral to many of their celebrations. Young people used festive dancing and singing in choosing their life partners. The missionaries deemed dancing to be evil. The filmmakers use an obvious visual and aural metaphor – a lightning storm and thunder – to illustrate the threat posed by the missionaries (see clip one). It helps set up a feeling of foreboding for what is to come for the islanders in the scene that follows. In modern times, however, traditions have prevailed and the islanders again have choice: they can freely perform their dances and practise the traditional way of life.

The second story, 'Survival at Sea’ from Kiribati, is a tale of the incredible endurance of three men who were resourceful, determined and optimistic against all odds. What they were able to do with a hard hat, piece of rope and a stick is amazing. The filmmakers also use a lightning storm and thunder in this story, but this time it illustrates the conditions the men were facing (see clip two).

The third story is a very short and strange tale called 'The Mermaid Mammal’ from Vanuatu (previously known as the New Hebrides). A shape in the water startles a woman. As her husband goes to spear it, it reveals itself as a dugong and speaks to him. The husband withdraws his spear and the dugong turns to stone and stays on the island. The islanders summon dugongs to play with the lonely stone mammal and subsequently the islanders do not hunt, kill or eat them. Two hundred years later, in 1774, Captain James Cook arrives at a bay he named Resolution, on Tanner Island, and a woman tells of one very special dugong, which explains the respect that island has for them.

The Pacifica series was a finalist in the Film Script Award category of the NSW Literary Awards in 1994. A large-format book based on the series was published when the series was released. Juniper Films also created an ‘edutainment’ interactive CD-Rom titled Pacifica – A Cultural Voyage, which includes curriculum support materials.

Pacifica: Tales from the South Seas screened on SBS TV from September 1993.