MR PIP

Ian Lloyd Neubauer goes to Bougainville Is­land, hop­ing to find the chil­dren who starred in the film Mis­ter Pip – and dis­cov­ers some­thing else both real and equally be­guil­ing.

North & South - - Contents - BY IAN LLOYD NEUBAUER

A jour­ney to Bougainville Is­land in search of the legacy of Mis­ter Pip takes an un­ex­pected turn.

The year is 1989. The place is Bougainville Is­land, the most far-flung prov­ince of Pa­pua New Guinea. War has erupted be­tween govern­ment troops and se­ces­sion­ist rebels over pol­lu­tion caused by Pan­guna, the largest open-cut mine on the planet, and ev­ery “dim-dim” (white man) leaves the is­land. All ex­cept Mr Watts, an ec­cen­tric English­man cut straight out of Con­rad’s Heart of Dark­ness.

It is, how­ever, an­other 19th- cen­tury clas­sic – Dick­ens’ Great Ex­pec­ta­tions – that Watts in his rum­pled tropical suits uses to ed­u­cate chil­dren in the vil­lage of Pidia, where he lives to make the class­room “a place of light” on a land torn apart by war. But when one of Watts’ stu­dents falls in love with Dick­ens’ pro­tag­o­nist, the or­phan Pip, and writes his name in the sand, it kick-starts a se­ries of calami­tous events that sees govern­ment troops mis­take Pip, and then Watts, as a rebel spy.

Such is the premise be­hind the 2006 novel-within-a-novel, Mis­ter Pip, by New Zealand writer Lloyd Jones – and a 2012 film of the same name, di­rected by fel­low Kiwi An­drew Adam­son. Jones cov­ered the con­flict on Bougainville as a jour­nal­ist in the late 80s.

Both works of art were run­away suc­cess sto­ries: the novel was short­listed for the Man Booker and won the 2007 Com­mon­wealth Writ­ers’ Prize for Best Book, while the film did more to ex­pose the de­pri­va­tions the war in­flicted on the peo­ple of Bougainville than all the re­port­ing done at the time. It also pole-vaulted the ca­reers of some of its ac­tors, in par­tic­u­lar Eka Darville, who played the role of Pip and re­cently ap­peared in a string of prime-time US mini-se­ries: Em­pire, The De­fend­ers and Jes­sica Jones.

But what be­came of the many other child ac­tors dis­cov­ered by cast­ing agents on Bougainville? To an­swer that ques­tion, I fly to Ki­eta in cen­tral Bougainville and start sniff­ing around.

My quest, I must re­port, is an ab­ject fail­ure; I find only one child ac­tor and he doesn’t want to talk. Yet I dis­cover some­one far more be­guil­ing: a dim-dim us­ing surf­ing to help teenagers avoid the scourge of al­co­holism that’s gripped Bougainville in the af­ter­math of the nine-year war – by show­ing them “a big­ger piece of the world” they can en­ter at will, much like the fic­tional Pip.

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