First contact

Bob Connolly filmmaker

My lost film story begins 80 years ago in the unexplored central highlands of New Guinea. Searching for gold in the 1930s, the Australian prospector Michael Leahy stumbles upon a million people previously unknown to the outside world. With an instinctive  nose for history and carrying a movie camera, Leahy documents the final significant confrontation in human history between one culture and the exploring representatives of another. But nobody recognizes the film’s  true significance at the time. Leahy grows embittered, and this archival masterpiece gathers dust in an attic for 50 years.

Come forward to 1980. Tracking rumours of “first contact” footage, my colleague Robin Anderson visits the late Michael’s son Richard in New Guinea and pops the question. Richard emerges from his attic with a battered suitcase and opens it. 11 small cans of 16mm film, each can containing a shotlist yellow with age. Reading those shotlists, Robin has to stop herself from grabbing everything and bolting.

Shrivelled and brittle, the film is unviewable. Promising restoration/ preservation, Robin departs with the footage and Richard’s blessing, and for 2 weeks those cans never leave her side. Landing back in Sydney she hails a cab, piles in her luggage, and heaves a sigh. Halfway home she looks for the battered suitcase. Not there! Left behind in an airport shop! Heart failure!

The suitcase is recovered, the cans deposited at the National Film Archive for restoration. After a 6 week wait we lace up our preservation copy on the editing machine and sit there, “silent on a peak in Darien”  as Michael Leahy’s wondrous scenes unspool for the first time in 50 years.

“First Contact” is born. Hopefully, the gruff old prospector looks down beaming.