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The Contemporary Pacific 12.2 (2000) 559-561

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Media Review

Kava: The Drink of the Gods

Kava: The Drink of the Gods, 90 minutes, VHS-PAL, color, 1998. Research, photography, and editing, Thorolf Lipp; producers, Asesela Ravuvu, William C Clarke, and Bob Maclay; produced by the Institute of Pacific Studies and the Media Centre, University of the South Pacific, Suva; distributor, Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific, PO Box 1168, Suva, Fiji; US$20 plus postage.

The video cover is not wrong. This film provides a wonderful "journey through Oceania with its stunning cultural and natural beauty and richness," consistently taking advantage of the compelling visual attractiveness of the region. A few quibbles might arise: some "live" shots are a little stilted, having been acted for the camera, and the pronunciation of some Pacific words in the narration is a little anglo, but these are minor distractions. The images, color, and sound quality cannot be faulted, and overall the video is a superb technical production.

The subject matter also holds enormous intrinsic interest for students of the Pacific. This interest has been fueled by definitive publications like Kava: The Pacific Elixir (Lebot, Merlin, and Lindstrom, 1997), [End Page 559] and now this video review of kava is a welcome addition. The audiovisual medium is so evocative that the olfactory and tasting senses of experienced kava drinkers may also be stimulated as they watch.

The video is largely documentary, incorporating much historical, cultural, and factual material and then raising contemporary issues. The videomakers have drawn on expertise from regional organizations, government departments, and knowledgeable people. At times though, the coverage is uneven: while tackling important and complicated issues relating to the international kava trade, it can also be touristy, including peripheral descriptions of food preparation methods that inform viewers that "coconuts must be grated before the cream can be extracted."

The title of the video suggests that the religio-cultic associations of kava have particular significance, but too much is made of this theme. The important role of kava in traditional religious practice is undoubted, and these associations are reflected in its widespread ceremonial use today, but more overt spirituality than is warranted is attributed to both formal and informal use of kava in modern Pacific societies, which have been Christianized for around two centuries. The use of eerie new-age background music and ominous shots of fruit bats may heighten these mystical overtones in the mind of western viewers, but one wonders if this accurately represents the worldview of modern Pacific Islanders enjoying a kava-drinking session with their friends.

The 90-minute duration of the video is perhaps a little lengthy for many potential viewing contexts, but allows for a well-paced survey of kava from a range of perspectives. (Thorolf Lipp reports that a 58-minute version, focusing on the ethnographic aspects, has now been produced.) The first hour includes three 15-minute segments from three locations. The first covers kava growing and preparation in a village in Vanuatu; the second highlights the ceremonial role of kava in the context of a chiefly visit to a Fijian village; and the third includes a narrative of a kava-origin story while focusing on formalized kava-drinking at a meeting of village leaders in Samoa. The final half-hour of the video takes kava out of its traditional ritual and ceremonial context, and kava-drinking in informal contexts is described for Fiji and Samoa. At this point the lack of any coverage in the video of kava-drinking in Tonga is most felt, as there, more than elsewhere, social kava-drinking has taken on pervasive and elaborated functions. For example, the informal faikava (kava circle) provides a locus for courting of the young woman making the kava, and the organized kalapu (kava club night) is an important fund-raising event for church and community activities, both in Tonga and among the diaspora.

The long-recognized psychotropic and social merits of kava-drinking, whereby it enhances both individual mental states and shared feelings of empathy, are often mentioned (although there...


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