- Canning Paradise by Olivier Pollet
One would like to view Canning Paradise as a dialogical movie: dialogical in the Bakhtinian sense of featuring independent, unmerged voices engaging each other in unfinalized, open-ended exchange that is subordinate to no last word (see Mikhail Bakhtin’s Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, 1984). But perhaps I am being naive.
The movie tells a story of the expansion of neoliberal capitalism into a postcolonial outpost in the global south. It is specifically about the Philippine tuna industry that established itself in a town in Papua New Guinea during the first decade of the current century. There are fishing and boating scenes in Canning Paradise. There are scenes of village meetings and urban scenes of heated, defiant demonstrations. For the most part, however, the movie focuses on talking heads. We see faces and hear the voices of every one of the main stakeholders in this story—European Union officials, local political elites, nongovernmental organization (ngo) leaders, villagers, men and women, young and old. We hear, that is, from everybody—everybody but representatives of the tuna industry who of course declined to participate. No matter. The absent voice of the latter inheres in their raw action, here seen in overfishing, polluting, abusing labor, and manipulating local elites, all with the goal of building a maquiladora, a free-trade zone for its profit and purposes in Madang town. Canning Paradise is made up of a great many voices, but to what extent is this dialogue open-ended? To what extent is it unfinalized?
The catastrophe of depleted nearshore fish stocks, the pollution of the urban bay, the threat of forced relocation of a small island community that willy-nilly finds itself located smack in the middle of the free-trade zone, and the exploitation of labor are all portrayed poignantly and staggeringly without mawkish romanticism. What stand out are the local people resisting the tuna industry and its maquiladora. They lodge angry protests against land alienation in the interest of the new free-trade zone and speak unequivocally of their multivalent commitments to the resources on which their livelihoods depend, the land and the sea. But all they have are their voices. They certainly lack official legal and political support, as well as support from international civil society. A pair of expatriate activists, a lawyer and an applied anthropologist, do appear repeatedly in the movie, as do another pair of ngo spokespersons. They speak on behalf and in defense of customary landowners and fishermen. And they speak on behalf of environmental regulation. But their voices are overwhelmed by the distanciated officials in business suits advocating the local and foreign value of tuna exports in such august venues as the Council of the European Union. [End Page 254]
The movie ends with the 2012 change of government in Papua New Guinea and with the suggestion that the pro-industry bias will begin to shift in favor of landowners and balance the playing field, to some extent at least. It also ends with a threat of violence akin to the resistance that took place over environmental impacts of a huge copper mine in Bougainville (1988–1997). The movie thus ends with the suggestion that in the dialogue between global capitalism and local-level resource owners, at least for the moment in this one setting, the forces of global capital will not simply be free to have the last word. As I said at the outset, one would like to hope that this absorbing documentary portrays a dialogical relationship in this Bakhtinian sense between local community members, distant markets, transnational capital, and national and international political regimes. But somehow one does not feel too confident that this open-ended, egalitarian kind of dialogue can or will be sustained in the long run.
Canning Paradise is a tremendous achievement for which I congratulate its producer/director/writer, Olivier Pollet. The only problem I have with it lies in its ninety-minute length...