Buena Vista filmmaker Connie “Paprika” Leaverton

Buena Vista filmmaker Connie “Paprika” Leaverton holds her first-place hardware from the Golden Gate International Film Festival.

by Max R. Smith

Times Staff Writer

The world is an endlessly complex and fascinating place, and one of the joys of watching and making documentaries is the opportunity to expose people through the medium of film to some of the countless diverse cultures and traditions that exist within our own species.

When Buena Vista filmmaker Connie “Paprika” Leaverton showed an ancient tradition of juggling on the Pacific island nation of Tonga, which is practiced exclusively by women, to a panel of judges at the Golden Gate International Film Festival in San Jose, California, last weekend, they awarded her film “Hiko in Tonga” the festival’s “Best Travel Documentary” award.

Leaverton said the film provoked a strong reaction from several of the women on the festival’s nine-person judging panel, who spoke with her after the screening, saying, “We are fascinated at how you got the women to open up to you, we loved seeing how happy they were juggling, we were fascinated that there was a culture of juggling and that it was only women, and we loved how you shared their lives with us.”

They said it just made them happy to watch it, and it inspired them, she said.

According to Leaverton’s research for the film, Hiko is a pastime enjoyed by the women of Tonga involving juggling bright green tree nuts, which has been documented since the islands were first visited by Western explorers in the 1700s.

Some Tongan women can juggle at the level of world-record holders in juggling, said Leaverton, who is also a performer with Salida Circus.

“There are legends of beyond world-record status,” Leaverton said. “Eight is the world record, and they were doing eight balls (in the air) in the 1950s.”

Keeping eight balls in the air at once means the balls are traveling as high in the air as a three-story building, she said.

Unfortunately, like many old traditions, interest in Hiko is disappearing, she said.

“I’m very grateful and humbled by the award. I think it’ll be a great way to reach out to the Tongan communities around the world to keep Hiko alive,” she said. “That’s become the goal of my film, and I’m also happy to see how it inspires and empowers people as they watch it.”

Leaverton said screenings of “Hiko in Tonga” in the Chaffee County area will be forthcoming

“I just love how it accomplished what I set out to do, which was inspiring and empowering, especially the women,” Leaverton said.

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