Wednesday 27 December 2017

Documentary Film-maker Chris Owen - A shoutout for his life's work

Editor's Note: I recently noticed a Facebook post by Andrew Pike, CEO of Ronin Films and Artistic Director of the Canberra International Film Festival, relating to film-maker Chris Owen. Andrew wrote: "Chris Owen is a fine filmmaker who spent decades working in Papua New Guinea recording cultures in transition, training filmmakers, assisting innumerable visiting filmmakers, and attempting to build infrastructure for the future through archiving and production support. In November 2017 he received a Life-time Achievement award from the Society for Visual Anthropology in the USA. He is now blind and very ill in Canberra Hospital. ..." When I inquired, it became apparent  it's a good moment to remind people of Chris Owen's achievements as a documentary film-maker. 

Andrew has forwarded to me this citation by Professor Don Niles on the recent occasion of the presentation of the Lifetime Achievement Award referred to.

                     *                      *                        *                         *                     *

Chris Owen (ph: Andrew Pike)
For his films on Papua New Guinea over more than three and a half decades, Chris Owen has been awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Society for Visual Anthropology. This took place at the annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) held recently in Washington, DC.

The Society for Visual Anthropology was founded in 1984 as a section of the AAA to promote the use of images for the description, analysis, communication, and interpretation of human behaviour. Its Lifetime Achievement Award is given to individuals whose body of work is recognized for its exemplary impact on the field of anthropology. Chris is only the ninth person to receive such an honour.

Award ceremony in Washington, 1 December 2017, with speaker
Jacqueline Lewis-Harris (a friend and former colleague of Chris Owen).
Ethnographic filmmaker and award organiser,
Allison Jablonko, on the right. Photo:  Jerome Crowder
Chris Owen’s award acknowledges his outstanding films on PNG traditional and contemporary culture. Ceremonies were held on 29 November and 1 December. While ill health prevented him from being present, colleagues, friends, and admirers of his work spoke on his behalf and saw a video thank-you message from Chris filmed at his home in Canberra, as well as highlights he selected from some of his documentaries.

Chris was born in Birmingham, UK, in 1944 and was educated in both the UK and Australia, in particular at the Birmingham College of Art and Design, where he received a graduate diploma in visual communication.

He moved to Papua New Guinea in 1973, initially employed as cinematographer by the Tourist Board, but joining the Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies as resident filmmaker in 1976. He was tasked with designing and initiating an ethnographic filmmaking programme that documented and preserved PNG cultures on film, and providing professional training for PNG filmmakers. He would be devoted to these tasks until his retirement in 2010.

In 2000 Chris became the head and later the director of the National Film Institute (formerly, Skul bilong Wokim Piksa) in Goroka, where he rebuilt the institution and its functions after it was destroyed by fire in 1996. At the time of his retirement, he had spent 37 years working at PNG government institutions, 34 of those years at bodies under what is today called the National Cultural Commission.

Chris Owen’s many years of productivity, dedication, and commitment to the people of PNG have resulted in an extraordinary rich and prolific output. Many of his films document spectacular aspects of traditional culture, such as The Red Bowmen, Malangan Labadama, and Bridewealth for a Goddess.

Other films focus on the ways individuals and groups have found to deal with potential conflicts between traditional and modern value systems, such as Man without Pigs, Gogodala—A Cultural Revival?, and Betelnut Bisnis. Chris directed one of the best known and most widely seen PNG contemporary dramas written for the screen, Tukana—Husat i Asua? He has also focussed on developmental issues and initiatives, such as Ramu Pawa, Re-Forestation Naturally, and the two films in the Real Options series.

Chris’s films have been shown at film festivals in Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Cyprus, France, India, Italy, Japan, the Netherlands, Papua New Guinea, Russia, UK, USA, and Uzbekistan, and have received countless international awards. His films have also been shown on television in countries such as Australia, Brazil, Germany, Japan, and Thailand, as well as PNG. They are used as course materials at numerous universities and museums in the US, Australia, and France.

While Chris is the filmmaker of least 16 films, he is credited in more than 33 others with various roles in the filmmaking process. Indeed, Andrew Pike, film historian and managing director of Ronin Films has noted that Chris ‘has contributed directly or indirectly to almost every significant documentary made in Papua New Guinea over the last three decades—whether as director, cinematographer, editor, or as adviser and trouble-shooter’ .

Chris has always been dedicated to teaching others about making films and has been eager to share his passion about filmmaking. Within PNG, such work has seen collaborations with Michelle Baru, Robert Buleka, John Himugu, Baik Johnston, Leonnie Kanawi, Ruth Ketau, Martin Maden, and Ignatius Talania, amongst others.

One of these collaborators, PNG filmmaker Martin Maden, has commented, ‘I do not know of one other culture whose children will inherit a film heritage such as the one Chris Owen has given to the people of Papua New Guinea’. Maden further observed that Chris ‘is seen by some of us as the greatest documentary cinematographer ever’.

Chris received PNG’s 10th Anniversary of Independence medal in 1985, and was made an Officer of the Order of Logohu (OL) in 2010. PNG joins the rest of the world in congratulating Chris on his well-deserved recognition from the Society for Visual Anthropology. We must also thank him for his unending commitment to our country and its peoples, and for contributing such a magnificent legacy in film.

Prof. Don Niles, PhD, OL, is Acting Director of the Institute of Papua New Guinea Studies, where Chris worked from 1976 to 1999.
Chris Owen (left) receiving his Order of Logohu medal from Sir Charles Lepani, Papua New Guinea
 High Commissioner to Australia, 2012.  Photo Andrew Pike.

Further Editor's Note: Graham Shirley has posted that Andrew Pike recorded a 90-minute oral history with Chris in August 1979. The interview was recorded during Andrew's first visit to PNG. This is held by NFSA as title #373690. 

Andrew also advises that there exists a separate audio recording just focusing on one film, Betelnut Bisnis. The interview was transcribed and included in the Press Kit of the film (available as a download on the Ronin Films website page for that film. See link below). 
Andrew worked with Chris a few times - first when he was one of several cameramen who contributed to ANGELS OF WAR which Andrew made in 1982.  Later, Andrew was sound recordist and co-producer on Chris's MAN WITHOUT PIGS (shot in 1986 but not completed and released until 1990), and as co-producer on BETELNUT BISNIS (2004).  The latter was, Andrew believes, the only pre-sale Chris ever had with Australian TV - thanks to Glenys Rowe, then head of SBS Independent.

Chris is also interviewed in TAKING PICTURES, the terrific doco that Les McLaren and Annie Stiven made in 1996 about filmmakers making films in PNG (Connolly-Anderson, O’Rourke, et al).  The full, unedited interview that Les and Annie did with Chris is archived in the NFSA.

French anthropologists have recorded a lot of Chris's experiences. 

PNG filmmaker and archivist, Chicco Baru, is midway through recording HD video memoirs.


  1. Making a documentary film is not a easy task.... Chris Owen have been doing for two and half decades

  2. I met Chris in his current residence last week. He is a very dear friend of my father. I hope he is recognised here in Australia soon. His health is deteriorating and his family are not in the country to assist him for another week. It is a pretty tough situation for such an independent person.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.