- Grassroots, Ceux qui votent
Throughout the past two decades a growing number of scholars have explored the complex interplay between emerging state structures, local senses of belonging, and concepts of national leadership that have informed the postcolonial history of Vanuatu. A recent addition to this roster is French anthropologist Éric Wittersheim, whose research about postcolonial politics and anthropological representation in Vanuatu and Kanaky (New Caledonia) first began to appear in the late 1990s and stresses the importance of approaching the apparent contradictions of Melanesian political systems as normal and inherent to local engagements with universalist models of governance.
With the presentation of his first documentary film, the subtitle of which translates as Those Who Vote, [End Page 497] Wittersheim offers a timely and impassioned exploration of electoral politics in Vanuatu. The film, which received the Prix du Jury at the 2004 International Oceanic Film Festival in Tahiti and has circulated widely in the Pacific Islands, lays bare some of the processes that inform the contestation of political authority and representation in and around Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu. The backdrop for the film was the 2002 presidential campaign, during which the emergence of new political parties exemplified the growing plurality of Vanuatu’s electoral landscape, which had hitherto been dominated by two parties with historical ties to the period of independence—the anglophone Vanua‘aku Pati (vp), and the francophone Union de Parties Modérés (upm, also ump). In this respect, Grassroots is of great value to Vanuatu scholars and, more generally, to political analysts with an interest in comparative discussion.
While he chose the 2002 election as an organizing theme, Wittersheim privileged the viewpoints, strategies, and activities of the National Community Association (nca), a newly constituted political party, which gave voice to the hitherto neglected periurban communities that straddle Port Vila. These are notoriously marginalized areas inhabited by disaffected and largely disenfranchised economic migrants who retain varying degrees of attachment to their communities of origin and are perceived as irrelevant voters—or simply undesirable—by mainstream politicians. The greatest value of Wittersheim’s documentary resides in the unique insight that it provides into the quotidian problems, desires and expressions of this growing, proletarianized, and oft-ignored sector of Vanuatu’s population.
The overall story line is built around the campaign strategy and community-centered (hence “grassroots”) rhetoric of nca leader Sabi Natonga. By the time of the 2002 elections Natonga was already a well-known figure in Port Vila, having first acquired notoriety as a professional boxer, soccer player, and coach; while still in his prime he retired from sports to become a successful businessman as branch manager of Bon Marché, an upscale supermarket franchise in Vila. As a representative of the majority Tannese community who inhabit the impoverished settlement of Blacksands, Natonga had achieved an uncommon degree of success and quickly seized on the potential leadership role that electoral politics offered. Having infused his immediate supporters—most notably the Tannese chief and apparent kinsman, Roy Yasul—with a sense of political direction, Natonga reached out to disaffected constituencies around Port Vila and the various provinces.
What is truly remarkable about Grassroots—and became the motivation for its tragic story line—is the unprecedented receptivity shown by otherwise different periurban and provincial communities to Natonga’s unifying discourse of popular representation. In the end, their enthusiasm proved insufficient—as viewers discover toward the end of the film, when they are treated to the dramatic denouement of election night and the nca failure to secure a single seat within the National Parliament. (However, the party proved its worth during recent electoral processes when [End Page 498] it finally obtained parliamentary representation.)
In addition to its focus on the National Community Association, the film presents various vignettes regarding the...