Interview: “What Lies That Way’ director Paul Wolffram

What Lies That Way sees filmmaker Paul Wolffram immerse himself in the spiritual world of Papua New Guinea’s Lak people, and undertake the initiation process into their Buai shaman cult. We asked Wolffram five quick questions about the film as part of our #NZIFFastFive series of Q&As.

Please summarise your film in EXACTLY ten words.

An exploration of the intersection between creativity and spirituality. [That’s nine words, Paul – Flicks]

What draws you to shamanic culture?

I’ve had a long connection with the cultural group of the Lak region, 16 years. My interest in their music and dance, and creative traditions drew me to the Buai shamanic practice. It is usually only undertaken by locals who have creative skills and want to enhance their creative powers.

How difficult was it to be accepted into the initiation process, much less film it?

No outsider has ever initiated into the Buai shamanic practice before. I am the first outsider to enter into the Buai practice. I am an exception because I speak the local language, I’ve been adopted into local clans and I have a special place in the society.

Once I’d completed the initiation I discovered just how few people have completed the process. Many have tried but most give up at 2 or 3 days with no water. I was determined to complete the 94 hours without food or water to gain access to the spiritual realm and discover, if I could obtain the creativity promised there.

I had a talented cinematographer, Luke Frater, with me and I did some filming myself when I was in the isolated initiation grounds. It was extremely difficult to think in terms of what a western audience needs to understand and what I needed to film as I underwent the rigours of extreme dehydration and fasting. After two days I could no longer sleep so I started to dream while awake. Things got pretty intense in the last 30 hours as I felt myself surrounded by unseen energy.

How do you contrast the footage of your experience with your memory and perceptions?

I spent a year cutting the film in the editing suite. It was difficult to try and capture the intensity of the experience and to convey something of the deeply resonant meanings of the initiation for the Lak people to an outside audience. In the end I feel the film has managed to show outsiders a very different and remote cultural worldview in a way that speaks to the power and possibilities inherent in other knowledge systems and ways if understanding the world.

What was the last great film you experienced?

I did enjoy Personal Shopper. I’m always excited by films that take you in directions you don’t expect.

‘What Lies That Way’ plays at the NZ International Film Festival