Finding Mr Pip: What happened to the children from the movie?

by Ian Lloyd Neubauer / 08 December, 2018
Photography by Ian Lloyd Neubauer.

All dressed up, with sand and shells, on Bougainville Island.

Ian Lloyd Neubauer goes to Bougainville Island, hoping to find the children who starred in the film Mister Pip – and discovers something else both real and equally beguiling.

The year is 1989. The place is Bougainville Island, the most far-flung province of Papua New Guinea. War has erupted between government troops and secessionist rebels over pollution caused by Panguna, the largest open-cut mine on the planet, and every “dim-dim” (white man) leaves the island. All except Mr Watts, an eccentric Englishman cut straight out of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

It is, however, another 19th-century classic – Dickens’ Great Expectations – that Watts in his rumpled tropical suits uses to educate children in the village of Pidia, where he lives to make the classroom “a place of light” on a land torn apart by war. But when one of Watts’ students falls in love with Dickens’ protagonist, the orphan Pip, and writes his name in the sand, it kick-starts a series of calamitous events that sees government troops mistake Pip, and then Watts, as a rebel spy.

Such is the premise behind the 2006 novel-within-a-novel, Mister Pip, by New Zealand writer Lloyd Jones – and a 2012 film of the same name, directed by fellow Kiwi Andrew Adamson. Jones covered the conflict on Bougainville as a journalist in the late 80s.

Both works of art were runaway success stories: the novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker and won the 2007 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book, while the film did more to expose the deprivations the war inflicted on the people of Bougainville than all the reporting done at the time. It also pole-vaulted the careers of some of its actors, in particular Eka Darville, who played the role of Pip and recently appeared in a string of prime-time US mini-series: Empire, The Defenders and Jessica Jones.

But what became of the many other child actors discovered by casting agents on Bougainville? To answer that question, I fly to Kieta in central Bougainville and start sniffing around.

My quest, I must report, is an abject failure; I find only one child actor and he doesn’t want to talk. Yet I discover someone far more beguiling: a dim-dim using surfing to help teenagers avoid the scourge of alcoholism that’s gripped Bougainville in the aftermath of the nine-year war – by showing them “a bigger piece of the world” they can enter at will, much like the fictional Pip.

Watch the Mr Pip trailer:

Kieta was established in 1905 as a customs station by Germany, Bougainville’s original colonial overlord. It was occupied by the Japanese during World War II and administrated by Australia in the post-war period until PNG gained independence in 1975.

Back in those days, the Kieta beachfront was known as Happy Valley: a golden strip of sand lined with villas, banks, boutiques, galleries, restaurants and the Kieta Sailing and Cruising Club – then the richest yacht club in the South Pacific.

But when war broke out, the good times came to an end and Kieta was levelled. All that remains today are ruins overgrown with jungle, retaining walls bathed in graffiti, pylons sticking out of the water and the wrecks of two small steamships at the end of a jetty where Queen Elizabeth II and her royal entourage disembarked during a state visit in 1974.

A Japanese fighter plane elevated on an iron pylon is just about all that remains of the Kieta War Memorial Museum.

A Japanese fighter plane elevated on an iron pylon is just about all that remains of the Kieta War Memorial Museum.

A Japanese fighter plane elevated on an iron pylon, an anti-aircraft gun and small tank are all that remain of the Kieta War Memorial Museum, along with a shrine where Japanese tourists, on the rare occasions they come, lay wreaths for their dead. I discover, too, the shell of the old Davaro Motel. Once regarded as the best resort in all of PNG, it’s now a squatter camp for impoverished locals, while an army of toads has taken over the slimy green pool.

The village of Pidia, where Mister Pip was set, occupies a sheltered bay to the north. But when I get there, I’m informed the film was actually shot on Pok Pok, the imposing jungle-clad island adjacent to Kieta. Though its official name is Bakavri, the island’s nickname is a derivative of “pukpuk” – the local word for crocodile – because its mountainous spine is shaped like a crocodile’s head.

After returning to Kieta, I stroll down to a concrete platform where fibreglass “banana” boats offer transport to Pok Pok Island for two Papua New Guinean kina (90¢). The first boat to arrive is not a public boat but that of an islander called Raphael Sapea, here to buy fuel.

“This is such a beautiful place, but we rarely get visitors because the outside world still associates Bougainville with war,” he says, when I explain my mission to write about the island. “The government wants to re-open the mine to rebuild the economy, but I think tourism can help in a big way. Our neighbours in the Solomon Islands make good money from it so we could, too – all we need is more infrastructure. I’m planning on building a few bungalows next to my house. Why don’t you come over and join my family for lunch?”

Rush hour on Pok Pok Island.

Rush hour on Pok Pok Island.

A few minutes later, we’re skirting the bright-blue waters of the strait en route to Pok Pok. When we reach its coast, the sea becomes turquoise and then gin-clear, exposing a series of technicolour coral reefs pockmarked with giant clams.

Sapea tells me dim-dims used to scuba dive here before the war. His home, an imposing Queenslander made of wood milled on the island, sits on a sandy cove surrounded by mango trees. He lives here with two of his adult kids and his wife, Barbara Ingiro-Sapea, who has a fascinating story of her own to tell.

In 1984, she travelled to Los Angeles as the first woman to represent Papua New Guinea in an Olympic Games, competing in the 100m sprint and 100m hurdle. “It was my first time overseas, so it was a real shocker,” she recalls. “The first time I saw a train hurtling past a crossing, I thought God must be crazy!”

She didn’t win a medal, “but it was such an amazing experience and such an honour to represent my country. If you go to Vision City, the big shopping centre in Port Moresby, you can see a photo of me carrying the national flag at the Olympics.”

After a scrumptious crayfish lunch, Sapea takes me on his boat to Assio Bay, home of Uruna Beach Retreat, a barefoot-style property with two family-size bungalows and a clubhouse tucked behind a curved white beach. Behind the retreat is a river, and on the other side of the river is Pok Pok Public School, where Sapea says I might find some of the actors from Mister Pip. He then bids me farewell as he’s off to net more crayfish – but invites me to join him for lunch again the following day.

By the time I arrive, class has wrapped up for the day and the children are running around a bright-green field surrounding the schoolhouse. I ask the principal, Augustine Kinani, if any of his students starred in Mister Pip. “That was some years ago,” he says. “They’ve all grown up now. Except for him,” he adds, pointing to a boy on the far side of the field. I think he’s about 18 now.”

The boy offers me a very gentle handshake, yet won’t tell me his name nor even look me in the eye, staring intently at his feet instead. I find it odd that he worked on a film directed by dim-dims but can’t even muster a simple hello. He clearly wants to be left alone, so I let him be and wander back down to the retreat. “You’re my only guest, so you’ll be the guest of honour,” says the manager John, a toothless middle-ager who chews betel nut incessantly.

As night falls, I find him barbecuing a large mackerel we later share with garden-fresh greens, fried banana and chilli as a million stars light up the night and bird-calls echo through the jungle. In a world of increasingly crowded and homogeneous travel destinations, Pok Pok busts the bell curve.

Left: Bougainvillean children on Pok Pok Island. Right: Californian surfie Geoff McAndrews.

I’m keen to visit Pok Pok’s largest village the following morning to see if I can find other former child actors there. If I sit on the beach, John tells me, a banana boat will eventually pass by. Or I can take a dugout canoe some of the schoolkids left on the beach yesterday and paddle it to the village. They would be pleased, he says, to have it delivered to their home.

Last night’s experience was special, but paddling a dugout canoe along Pok Pok’s coral coastline is otherworldly. Schools of silvery anchovies explode from the water, pursued, on one occasion, by a spinner dolphin. A metre-wide green turtle pokes its head out of the water and makes eye contact with me as I pass, while colourful hornbill screech and prance around the trees. I see a boy scurry up a palm tree with the dexterity of a monkey and use his feet to knock coconuts to the ground below. When I pass Raphael and Barbara’s property, I wave to one of his children, who’s enjoying a morning swim.

An hour after taking off, I paddle into the village.

“Are you here to see Geoff?” asks a small girl with a frizzy afro and impeccable English, while helping me land the canoe.

“Who’s Geoff?”

“Geoff is Geoff,” she replies, matter-of-factly. “Everyone knows Geoff. Come, I’ll take you to him,” she adds, now holding my hand.

Geoff McAndrews is a six-and-a-half-foot dim-dim in his late 40s from Venice Beach, California. When we find him waxing a collection of surfboards under a stilt house, he’s as surprised to see me as I am to see him. And like so many other residents on this little-known island, Geoff has a very interesting story to tell.

“I travelled all over the world since I was young, looking for perfect waves, with the dream of setting up a surf camp – places like Tahiti, Fiji, Mexico and Puerto Rico. But I found all the good spots were already taken,” he says.

“Then I started thinking about the last place that had a surf tourism boom and that was El Salvador. It made me realise that surf tourism booms whenever war stops. The lightbulb went off in my head and I started looking for places emerging from conflict. Africa came to mind, but Africa is kind of gnarly. Then I remembered reading about the crisis over the copper mine in Bougainville and got onto Google Earth to help me zoom in on all the reefs and pinpoint the best surfing locations.”

McAndrews emailed Uruna Bay Retreat and told them he wanted to come looking for waves. “They told me white men from the mine used to surf here before the war – some 20 years ago. That really made me trip out, so I jumped on a plane and now this place is home. Two years ago, I married a local woman and we just had our first baby, who we named Elton John. A couple of years ago, my wife and brother-in-law Kevin built a lodge on a little island not far from here. Want to check it out?”

Local grommets load surfboards into a runabout at Tautsina Island Surf Lodge.

After a crayfish breakfast, we jump in McAndrews’ banana boat and motor back the way I came in the dugout canoe. Veering to the mainland, we head to Tautsina Island, one of Pok Pok’s many satellites, and approach a little cove, home to a cabin on stilts. Tautsina Island Surf Lodge is the only building on the island, and to date it’s hosted only a few groups of surfers from Australia. It’s currently occupied by McAndrews’ brother-in-law and half a dozen village kids helping him prepare it for the start of the next surf season. “Can we go surfing, Geoff? Can we? Can we?” they plead, tugging on his boardshorts and fingers.

“Sure,” he says. “Go grab your boards and put them into the boat. But first I’m going to show my new friend around.”

With solar panels for charging phones, a freshwater creek and waterhole for bathing and noisy hornbills as neigh-bours, Tautsina Island Surf Lodge offers a genuine Robinson Crusoe experience. Beyond its little beach, only a five-minute ride on a banana boat, is a semi-circle of offshore reefs where barrel-like waves break in perfect unison. “There may be 20 world-class waves out here,” McAndrews says as we anchor in Shark Alley, a passage between two of the largest reefs. “I’ve only surfed five. There’s still so much to discover.”

When the anchor is secure, the kids jump into the ocean, paddle onto the reef and start carving up waves. “I may have come here to start a surf camp,” says McAndrews, “but I think fate brought me for another reason – to introduce surfing to these kids.

“The war took everything out of people here. Everything stopped, every house was burned down and the trauma has been passed onto the next generation. There are no jobs and the only thing they have for entertainment is volleyball and home brew. They make it from yeast and pineapples – it’s called Steam – and let me tell you, it’s toxic. I tried it once and never again. It burns their brains away, leaves them with a vacant look in their eyes. In some cases, it even blinds them.”

I think back to my meeting with the child actor at the public school and the way he stared at his feet. “Could he have been on home brew?” I ask.

“I don’t know the boy, so couldn’t say,” says McAndrews. “What I can tell you is the chief made a new law that if you drink home brew, you’re banned from volleyball. But those kids just drink even more.”

Surfing is giving them a healthy outlet. “Look at these guys. When I came here, they wouldn’t get their feet wet. Now, it’s hard to get them out of the water.

“If I can stop one kid from drinking home brew all day in the village, then my mission here has been a success – even if I never get another booking. Hey, but enough of these interviews. Let’s ride some waves.”

“Sure,” I answer. “Sure, Mister Pip.”

A local carves up a wave at Shark Alley.

Fact file

Getting there

Air Niugini (airniugini.com.pg) flies to Port Moresby from Bali, Singapore, Hong Kong, Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne (among others). PNG Air (pngair.com.pg) flies from Port Moresby to Kieta via Rabaul thrice weekly.

Surfing there

Tautsina Island Surf Lodge (bakavari.com) charges 125 kina ($56) per person per night or 225 kina ($100) with meals included. The surfing season is from September to May.

Staying there

Uruna Bay Retreat (bougtours.com) on Pok Pok Island charges 190 kina ($85) per person per night with full board. 

This article was first published in the October 2018 issue of North & South.

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