Things that make you go hmmm: cinemas, sores and intergenerational palimpsests

Outdoor cinema built by the NZ Army Engineers in the Solomon Islands during WWII. Source: Sage (1945).

Here’s one of those weird stories that make you go hmmm. A few years ago, I read Mum one of my poems (Tropical Depression) that I had written about a missionary nun in the Pacific. The poem contained a very graphic description of leg sores that the nun, one of the missionary sisters of the Society of Mary, obtained in New Caledonia. She was subsequently sent to Villa Maria in Sydney to recuperate from her physical and mental ailments.

you scratch
the weeping pustules
poisonous mosquito kisses
forming sceptic angel footprints
up and down your unloved legs…

As Mum listened to the poem, she gasped and said, “Oh my god, that sounds just like what Dad had when he came back from the Pacific Islands”. My grandfather was an engineer who built roads and bridges in the Pacific during World War II. The sores had scarred his legs forever – just as they had the nun in my poem.

She then showed me a book she had recently bought that recounted some of the history of the New Zealand Engineers in the Pacific (Reed, 1945). It turns out that my grandfather was in New Caledonia, the site of much of my research, something that I didn’t know until then. Aside from basic infrastructure, the New Zealand Engineers also built open air movie theatres. The book had the picture above of one of these outdoor cinemas in the Solomon Islands. Here are a few excerpts describing the open air cinemas in New Caledonia:

From Nepoui, the nightly truck ran us up to lie on hard ground or ant-hills and watch the silver screen mirror the mozzies… We started our cinema building proper on the slope behind Taom roadhouse… Bamboo seating installed for upwards of 2,000 personnel was usually filled. Additional bodies lay at all angles to the platformed screen. The maintenance of bamboo seating when folks would persist in walking over the terraces proved a problem but, for the period that we stayed, the road-house cinema proved a most valuable adjunct in morale building… Yet another engineer production in Necal was the Nepoui Valley show, the 37th Field Park’s rustic seated erection. Later it was possible to visit the New Zealand mobile film unit which had a busy time playing to the demoiselles on the whitewashed walls of Bourail Place (Sage, 1945: 75). 

In 2010, I translated a book of New Caledonian short stories, one of which talked about the open air cinemas in New Caledonia during the war…

Back then the store was a little bit of everything: the shop, the bar, the theatre and the cinema. Not long after this, the first open air cinemas came to the villages – a white sheet was used as a screen in those days. But the spell was broken and these European images never had the same flavour as those nights at the store… (Savoie and Speedy, 2010: 70).

I don’t know if my grandfather had a hand in building a movie theatre on any of the islands but he certainly would have watched films at one.

Interestingly, my grandfather was also bridge building in the Solomons and the Gilberts (Kiribati), places that also feature prominently in my research (Speedy, 2016a, 2015)… just some of the fascinating intergenerational palimpsests or webs of connections across the Pacific in my own family.

Further Reading

Hosie, John. 1987. Challenge: The Marists in Colonial Australia. Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

Sage, Clive B. 1945. Pacific Pioneers: the story of the engineers of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in the Pacific. Dunedin: A. H. and A. W. Reed.

Speedy, Karin. 2016a. “Constructing Subaltern Silence in the Colonial Archive”, Journal of Australian Colonial History, 18, 95-114.

Speedy, Karin. 2016b. “Tropical Depression”, original poem in Snorkel literary magazine, issue 23, see also

Speedy, Karin. 2015. “The Sutton Case: the First Franco-Australian Foray into Blackbirding”, The Journal of Pacific History, 50.3, 344-364.

Speedy, Karin and Savoie, Hélène. 2010. Les Terres de la demi-lune / Half-Moon Lands. Bilingual edition, Translated and with a Critical Introduction by Karin Speedy. L’Harmattan: Paris, 2010.

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