People don’t change overnight.
— Mal Smith Lela
“The way this country was built many years ago,” observes Terry Isagimo of Papua New Guinea, “It works along who you know, and if you are asked to do a favor, whether it’s a good one or a bad one, you have an obligation to do it, even if it’s against your concerns.” Isagimo is the campaign manager for Malcolm Smith Kela, and as he speaks, he’s driving. It’s not clear whether this is one of those “favors” someone might be asked to do, whether the supremely wealthy Mal prefers to ride with Isagimo because he’s a friend, because the campaign is cutting costs, or because they plot strategy while driving across the rough terrain in search of votes.
What is clear, throughout the documentary Rules of the Game, that just how “this country was built” is not exactly a coherent story, much less one with stipulatory goals or measures. As the movie declares early on, the country to this day remains divided by lack of infrastructure and organization as well as an abundance of tribes and clans (hundreds) and languages (over 800).
Airing as part of PBS’ Global Voices series, Thom Cooke’s film examines the 2007 election for the Eastern Highlands governor, focusing on three of the 36 candidates: “white man and current governor” Kela; Jon Yogiyo, the president of Growers Direct Coffee (his campaign slogan, notes the film, is “‘Grow coffee and you’ll become rich,’ which is what he’s done”); and Julia Soso, head of a women’s community organization, and the only woman in the race. As it travels with each candidate, the movie also trots through a brief, newsreel-pocked background on the nation’s complicated history — from tribal fragments to Australian colony to independent state (as of 1975), which actually means utterly dependent on gobs of Australian aid.
This aid is, in 2007, jeopardized by rampant political corruption and violence during previous elections. All three candidates featured in the film are running against this history, as well as Prime Minister Michael Somare, each claiming to be the candidate of “change” (or something like it). The film doesn’t look into the precise relations between the PM and Vietnam veteran Kela (also the owner of a “string of businesses,” from hotels to helicopter transports to shopping complexes to clubs, in Israel and Afghanistan, Nepal and Tibet). Neither does it delve into possible business or other tradeoffs Kela may be wrangling in is carbon cap deals. It does, however, show the candidate giving lively speeches against the government in Port Moresby.
On this issue, which seems to be the issue of the election, Soso and Yogiyo concur. Soso asserts, “There’s no leader giving direction, telling them what should be done and how should we go.” And Yogiyo, the film narrates, means to “tap into” voter anger at the present government, railing against “the recycled Prime Minister and the recycled members: they’ve messed up the country, they’re all in it for themselves.” He makes his promises “international” when, visiting a mountainside village, his emcee introduces him with reference to “the governor of California, whom you know as the movie actor, ‘Commando.’ You know his action movies.” This hero, avows the campaigner, “wants us to give power to John, to win this election.” Yoyigo’s plans for the future include shares in his latest coffee company and investments in roads to get the beans to market. It’s true, notes the film, that these are “new concepts for coffee growers” in PNG, but Yogiyo’s listeners are impressed when he kills a pig for one campaign event. (And it’s instructive that the film juxtaposes this success with Soso’s decision to bring bread and soda to a funeral gathering, which is not nearly so inspiring: apparently, voters want to be bought, just as they do in any other democracy.)
As varied and energetic as such efforts may be, none is guaranteed to win support. This is the film’s primary and repeated point, that PNG is “one of the last places to join modern society,” its progress retarded by lack of cohesive vision and long-term thinking, as well as an excess of opportunism and exploitation. As constitutional lawyer John Nonggorr puts it, no matter how much anyone wants to adopt “democracy,” still, in PNG, “We’ve got to recognize the tribe, a tribe controls people.” After multiple elections that were rigged, via threats, over-votes, stuffed and burned and bombed) ballot boxes, bribes, fights, and shootings, Nonggorr has been working on rewriting election laws. “It’s a learning process: people are learning the bad things as well as the good.” Welcome to “modern society.”