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27 August 2013

First Contact


When Columbus and Cortez ventured into the New World there was no camera to record the drama of this first encounter. But, in 1930, when the Leahy brothers penetrated the interior of New Guinea in search of gold, they carried a movie camera. Thus they captured on film their unexpected confrontation with thousands of Stone Age people who had no concept of human life beyond their valleys. This amazing footage forms the basis of First Contact.

Yet there is more to this extraordinary film than the footage that was recovered. Fifty years later some of the participants are still alive and vividly recall their unique experience. The Papuans tell how they thought the white men were their ancestors, bleached by the sun and returned from the dead. They were amazed at the artifacts of 20th century life such as tin cans, phonographs and airplanes. When shown their younger, innocent selves in the found footage, they recall the darker side of their relationship with these mysterious beings with devastating weapons.

Australian Dan Leahy describes his fear at being outnumbered by primitive looking people with whom he could not speak. He felt he had to dominate them for his own survival and to continue his quest for gold. First Contact is one of those rare films that holds an audience spell-bound. Humour and pathos are combined in this classic story of colonialism, told by the people who were there.

"The film is ironic, poignant, and often chilling. It's ironic to see recent shots of the natives, once so isolated, sporting Western clothes and chuckling over old photos of themselves. It's poignant to hear women recall being sexually "sold" to the visitors despite their fears. It's chilling to hear the Leahy brothers matter-of-factly explain why they killed their less hospitable hosts - forgetting that, whatever the danger may have been, no invitation had been offered them in the first place. It's a disturbing film, full of head-on challenges to colonial and racist attitudes. Yet it's a deeply human experience, too: Its message, strongly implied if not stated, is that some kind of rapport is bound to develop in any situation, however clouded the circumstances may be by isolation, ignorance, and the urge for domination" — Christian Science Monitor

View more images here.


Publisher Penguin Books Ltd, published 25/02/1988
ISBN-13:9780670801671, ISBN-10:0670801674
hardback, 100 black-and-white photographs.