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The Healer and the Psychiatrist  cover image

The Healer and the Psychiatrist 2019


Distributed by Documentary Educational Resources, 108 Water Street, 5A, Watertown, MA 02472; 617-926-0491
Produced by Mike Poltorak
Directed by Mike Poltorak
Streaming, 74 mins

College - General Adult
Anthropology; Mental Health Services; Psychiatry; Public Health

Date Entered: 08/03/2021

Reviewed by Stephanie Conover, Cataloging Specialist, High Point Public Library

The Healer and the Psychiatrist explores two mental health treatment models (traditional medicine and psychiatry) practiced on Vava’u, a group of islands located in the southern Pacific Ocean.

After experiencing an illness when he was younger that was resolved using traditional healing methods, Dr. Mike Poltorak, a medical anthropologist, chose this region for research on social causes of sickness. Dr. Poltorak filmed, produced, and directed this documentary.

We are introduced to Emeline Lolohea, ‘The Healer’, and Dr. Mapa Puloka, ‘The Psychiatrist’. Emeline does not charge for her services and uses traditional Tongan medicine practices in her work. Mapa uses a different approach in his treatment methods, bringing more of a Western medicine framework to his clinical practice. Trust and communication are shaky between Tongans and hospitals/clinics.

Mental health issues are attributed to tevolo, or dark spirits. Tongans who receive traditional medicine during treatment experience less of a community stigma, but Mapa sees his psychiatric treatment as complementary to traditional medicine and works to promote its use through group therapy, where patients gather and talk while drinking kava, and occupational therapy, where patients grow their own food and work with the land.

The film uses flashback footage and historical videos to supplement the more recent footage of Emeline and Mapa using their respective treatment methods. Non-intrusive camera work and judicial use of subtitles contribute to the respectful tone of the film. The Healer and the Psychiatrist is a languid film; the pacing showcases the deep caring inherent in the two practitioners’ different health care styles.

This is not a divisive film. Although the Healer and the Psychiatrist have never met in person, the film explores the relationship between traditional Tongan healers and doctors, and promotes the message of building complementary, not adversarial, relationships between the two. The ultimate goal of both health care practitioners is culturally appropriate care for their patients.


Best Feature Film, Society for Visual Anthropology Film & Media Festival, USA, 2020; Official Selection, Eyes & Lenses Ethnographic Film Festival, Poland, 2020; Official Selection, Hawaii International Film Festival, USA, 2020; Official Selection, Collected Voices Film Festival, USA, 2020; Official Selection, Macquarie University International Ethnographic Film Festival, Australia, 2020; Official Selection, Garifuna International Indigenous Film Festival, USA, 2020; Official Selection, Riga Pasaules Film Festival, Latvia, 2020; Official Selection, German International Ethnographic Film Festival, Germany, 2020; Official Selection, LIDF (London International Documentary Film Festival), UK, 2019

Published and licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license. Anyone can use these reviews, so long as they comply with the terms of the license.