"Tongan Ark is a film about tiny islands and big ideas. It takes us to ‘Atenisi, a poor but vibrant university in the Kingdom of Tonga, where the veteran philosopher and opera buff Futa Helu and his talented but eccentric staff teach Greek philosophy alongside Polynesian dance, and advocate both freedom of thought and a concern for tradition.
Helu founded his school to help reform Tongan society, and his work as a social critic has earned him the nickname the ‘Socrates of Tonga’. But when a riot erupts outside the school gates, the crises of contemporary Tonga become the crises of ‘Atenisi. State repression, poverty, and violence all threaten the future of Futa Helu’s school.
Tongan Ark is a film for the senses, as well as the mind. Director Paul Janman introduces Western audiences to the lush and troubled landscapes of the Kingdom of Tonga, and also to the richness of Tongan intellectual life."
- Dr. Scott Hamilton, Reading the Maps
“The cultural work at ‘Atenisi undermines simplistic notions of Western cultural primacy, just as Helu’s appeal to Greek antiquity complicates a linear approach to modernisation.”
- Giovanni Tiso, Overland Journal
Tongan Ark's world premiere received a standing ovation at Auckland's Sky City Theatre in August 2012 as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival. The full house was treated to a post-film show by a huge group of performers from 'Atenisi University and the historical fofo'anga (kava circle singers) that Futa Helu helped to found. The guest of honour was Hon. Salote Lupepau'u Tuita who graciously received a ceremonial cup of kava from the people.
Filmmaker Paul Janman (Tongan Ark) and poet, blogger and historian Scott Hamilton (Reading the Maps) walked two hundred kilometres and travelled through one hundred and fifty years of history up the Great South Road from the King Country to Auckland with camera and notepad in hand.