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.
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.