I never set out to make a film. But, as many filmmakers seem to discover, the story found me.
I have always been interested in the power of sport, and in 2014 I moved to Papua New Guinea to work in media and communications for the NRL-run, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade-funded League Bilong Laif (League for Life) program, which uses rugby league in schools and communities to deliver key social messages.
In a country with high rates of gender-based violence and entrenched lack of opportunity for women, this was a powerful example of a grassroots change.
Rugby league is not just the national sport in PNG, it’s a national obsession – a unifying force in an otherwise often-divided country, and a source of joy and optimism in the face of many problems.
Living and working in PNG allowed me to see the community impact of leveraging the huge popularity of the NRL. But I always thought there was an equally important story waiting to be explored: women playing rugby league in PNG.
All my female colleagues were rugby league players for local club teams in Port Moresby, and they spoke privately about how their participation in the country’s male-dominated, national sport had changed their lives and the attitudes of those around them.
In a country with high rates of gender-based violence and entrenched lack of opportunity for women, this was a powerful example of a grassroots change that I believed could resonate with a wider audience, in PNG and beyond. When it was confirmed that PNG would form a national team, the Orchids, to participate in the 2017 Women’s Rugby League World Cup for the first time, it was the perfect opportunity to document the players’ stories and the team’s journey, and present it on the big screen through the rarely-heard voices of these pioneering female players.
Through a feature-length film that would be embraced internationally, I also hoped to address mainstream Australia’s lack of engagement with its nearest neighbour, and share the story of an inspiring group of PNG women to counteract the negative and niche way that PNG is often portrayed on screen here.
Getting access to film an international sporting team during a world cup is rare. There is a fine balance between capturing enough of the story to do it justice, and not distracting the team ahead of important matches. The film focuses on the stories of four players, and they were all supportive of the documentary’s big picture goal and understanding of the film-making process. We deliberately did key interviews before and after the World Cup in order to minimise disruption during the tournament.
During the editing process, I showed a near-complete cut of the film to the players for their feedback. They were overwhelmed with how powerfully their story came across on screen, and even happier when they saw the final film.
The team’s World Cup captain Cathy Neap said:
I think this film will allow people to see how far the Orchids have come, and the struggles they have come through to get this far. It’s also important because it will help get the message across that women are starting to rise up and doing things that were not usually done by women before, and it’s important for men and little girls and boys to see that.
Orchids player and inaugural NRL women’s premiership winner with Brisbane Broncos, Amelia Kuk, said:
It’s an amazing feeling to have this documentary made about the real struggles that women go through in this country … This film will help give girls a voice, and I’m sure everyone will relate to it in one way or another. Everything in this film is raw and real. That’s what makes it so unique and powerful and, through the power of rugby league, we can make a difference.
The film charts the challenges of the transition from grassroots to the world stage: minimal preparation time, limited funding and resources, social prejudice, and negative public opinion.
One issue raised in the film that has resonated widely is social media abuse. The film features real Facebook comments which reflect the rising tide of public commentary about the team’s World Cup. In PNG, where Facebook is one of the most popular platforms for public discourse and information sharing, the topic remains as hot as ever.
But even Australia-based NRL players who have seen the film have commented on the depth of the problem here too, and the mental health impact of social media on athletes.
Although there have been only a handful of screenings in PNG and Australia so far, the film is already prompting discussion about the potential of women’s rugby league to change PNG society and how its growth and development can be supported with input from the fast-moving elite women’s rugby league landscape in Australia.
In August, the Orchids and the newly-established Brisbane Broncos women’s team signed a partnership, allowing Orchids players to access the Broncos’ high-performance resources and expertise. With the recent advent of the NRL women’s competition, it will be interesting to see whether other NRL clubs extend their women’s talent scouting program to PNG.
Given the sports diplomacy potential of expanding the Australia-PNG relationship through women’s rugby league, and the mooted possibility of seeing a PNG team in the women’s NRL sooner than in the men’s, it’s a space worth watching.
The Lowy Institute is hosting a special cinema screening of Power Meri featuring a Q&A with director Joanna Lester this Thursday 8 November at Dendy Opera Quays from 6.30pm. Tickets can be purchased online here.