Liborio: An Artist of the Solomon Islands (Australia/Solomon Islands, 2018)

Award-winning Australian documentarian Elliot Spencer visits the stunningly beautiful Malaita Province in the Solomon Islands to film his latest project, Liborio: An Artist of the Solomon Islands. Spencer takes a holistic yet concise look at native artist, Liborio Maemari, chronicling his life and thoughts in the span of a few days. Through a series of evocative and touching vignettes, this short documentary illustrates how both powerful and destructive modernity can be on an unsuspecting culture.  

Liborio is a painter of mainly religious imagery. He shares his art with his local community during religious festivals such as Christmas or Easter, when public reenactments of Jesus’ story take place (a reenactment of the crucifixion is featured on the documentary). In his spare time, Liborio also works as a carpenter and a fisherman to make ends meet. Fishing is a major source of income in the Malaita Province of the Solomon coast, though not necessarily a stable one. As Liborio regrettably admits, it all depends on the catch of the day. Nevertheless, thanks to the strong sense of community that still exist in the village, Liborio is happy with the quality of his life in the islands. Despite much of the younger generation moving to the bigger cities, he could not see himself moving away from the village and his community.

The documentary, clocking at approximately 30 minutes, has no set structure or obvious underlying narrative. Much like a cinematic equivalent of a portrait (Liborio’s specialty in art), the film paints a picture of single individual. For most of the runtime the camera follows Liborio around the island (occasionally intercut with shots of nature), as the artist in voice-over narration comments on everything around him, from his art and work ethic, to climate change, to the current state of affairs with the island’s youth. In one instance, for example, Liborio comments on the barter system his people used to have, and how the introduction of money changed everything. “When money came, communities grew apart,” he says. In another scene he tells the story of how he lost his grandmothers to American bombings in WW2, who mistakenly confused the island for a Japanese hideout.

The topics are diverse, yet all of Liborio’s musings have a common theme: change. In its entire modern history, the people of the Solomon Islands have struggled to adapt to the changes brought on by others – money, wars, climate change – with the islanders themselves having little to no say in the matter. While obviously nostalgic for a bygone era, Liborio offers no outright condemnation or approval for all the changes that have taken place during his lifetime. Instead, he does the only thing he knows how, to keep painting, keep building, and keep moving forward.   

Perhaps the most notable aspect of the documentary is Spencer’s cinematography, which takes full advantage the artist’s striking habitat. The film’s visuals invite silent admiration as Spencer displays great talent for capturing natural beauty. The images on screen don’t necessarily match with Liborio’s voice over, though on occasional the camera manages to make some poignant connections. In one example, Liborio ponders on the effects of rising sea levels on the region, while the camera slowly reveals the geological fragility of the myriad islands that are barely above sea level. In the following shot, we see children carrying rocks to raise the elevation of their homes in order to prevent them from overflowing with seawater.

Liborio: An Artist of the Solomon Islands is a stunningly beautiful short documentary that snapshots the present of an entire culture through the eyes of one of its most prominent artists. Both humble and ambitious in its goal, the documentary is simply a delight to watch. If nothing else, it offers a fascinating view of a culture not often present in western media.

John Atom