Bob and Robin made three documentaries in the highlands, two of them about Joe Leahy and his neighbors. Each was a triumph, and they still are recognized as such, icons of a genre, touchstones of both anthropology and film. The initial one, First Contact, was nominated for an Academy Award, and the last, Black Harvest, had “extraordinary historical resonance,” the New York Times wrote, “so rich that watching it feels like taking an inspired crash course in economics and cultural anthropology.” Newsweek said it had “the scale and richness of classical tragedy.” Which was true, because everything ended so badly.
On a clear, bright summer morning more than two decades later, Bob inhales a great gulp of crystalline air. Away from Mount Hagen, a chaotic burgh wrapped in barbed wire and wood smoke, the highlands are pristine. Bob always was struck by that, the clarity of the place. As for the rest—Kilima, Joe, the Ganiga who have lived on this land for untold generations—Bob isn’t sure how it all turned out, and that’s why he’s back for the first time in more than 25 years. Maybe he’ll even find enough story for a fourth film.
The Dutch-born historian and New York Review of Books editor Ian Buruma spent several years in Tokyo when he was in his early 20s, and he picked up a nickname. Because “Buruma” sounds a bit like the word “bloomers” in Japanese, at least one acquaintance — Hijikata Tatsumi, the father of Butoh dance — called him Underpants or, for short, Pants.
It was an affectionate sobriquet. The Japanese playwrights, dancers, film directors and actors who made up Buruma’s milieu in the mid-1970s adored him. He was exotic, a gaijin, as white as tofu. He was tall and good-looking and possessed a trace of bohemian glamour because it was known that his uncle was John Schlesinger, the director of “Midnight Cowboy.”
“Freshwater” is a poetic and disturbing depiction of mental illness as it haunts the protagonist from birth to adulthood: “the brief insanities that are in you, not just the ones that blossomed as you grew taller … but the ones you were born with, tucked behind your liver.” It is an unflinching account of the way mental illness can grow, transform and destroy not just relationships, but one’s sense of self as well.