Tusalava: a unique animated classic inviting many interpretations

Len Lye, “Tusalava” (1929)

It must have been astonishing enough when it was first released with its original piano music score by woefully under-rated Australian experimental composer Jack Ellit back in 1929; over 90 years later, the animated short “Tusalava” by legendary New Zealand film-maker / sculptor Len Lye still exerts a strange fascination on viewers. The B&W film itself may have aged, the techniques employed may look primitive and colouring the film might reveal something new and unexpected – but for most people, as it is this film will embody themes, topics and ideas stretching far beyond what Lye might have originally intended. In making this film, Lye was inspired by the artistic traditions of indigenous peoples in Australia and Samoa (now Western Samoa) while travelling among them in the 1920s; indeed he was expelled from Samoa by the New Zealand colonial authorities for – eek! – living with an indigenous community there.

Divided into two split screens, the film appears to trace the evolution of organic forms of life from inorganic forms and from there to investigate the development of conscious thought and behaviour, the appearance of parallel forms of behaviour and development in two worlds, and the interactions that develop when those two worlds come into contact. Conflict and co-operation culminating in exchanges of influence (including what looks like contamination and pollution) take place. One of those two worlds resembles a humanoid tribal totem at some point in its development while the other looks like an evil multi-cellular parasite being and it’s not hard to see some allusion to European colonisation of First World cultures around the planet and how Europeans often pilfered these cultures for their resources and even their artistic styles and traditions. All the way through the film the worlds are in constant motion, and motion as a driver of development and evolution, and life itself, becomes a significant theme. Eventually the two worlds combine into a singularity, from which a new cycle of inorganic forms evolving into organic forms may begin.

Perhaps because of the film’s “modernist primitive” style with its abstract imagery on simple backgrounds, that audiences through the decades can read so much into the actions of the imaginary life-forms. Over time, audience interpretations change and evolve with the film itself, keeping it fresh in spite of its age and Lye’s relative inexperience in film-making at the time. (“Tusalava” was his first foray into film-making.) That the original piano music soundtrack has been lost is a tragedy in itself, as Jack Ellit was an early pioneer in music experimentation; paradoxically the loss only heightens the ambiguity of the film and encourages viewers to imagine (and even compose) their own musical accompaniments with their particular interpretations of the action and themes of “Tusalava”. For all its apparent simplicity, the film is surprisingly sophisticated, inviting keen viewer interest, thought, discussion and even participation; no wonder that it is a unique classic of New Zealand film culture.