Dr Mike Poltorak is a social, medical and visual anthropologist who has carried out ethnographic research in Tonga, New Zealand, Sweden and Germany. The use of video and feedback have been central in his addressing of questions in the broad area of social health and illness that grew out of his doctoral research on traditional healing, mental health and the development of public psychiatry in Tonga. Mike has also researched vaccination resistance in Brighton and Hove, UK as part of a research project based at the Institute of Development Studies and University of Sussex.
Dr Poltorak's first degree was in Engineering and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. At University College London, he gained an MSc and PhD in Social and Medical Anthropology, graduating in 2001. Teaching and research positions at the Universities of Sussex, Brunel, Manchester, UCL, Oxford and Kent have allowed Mike to develop the use of video in reflexive and transformative pedagogy and use feedback methodologies with multiple audiences and stakeholders to create videos with impact and community value.
Publications in regional and specialist journals are complimented by four feature documentaries that have variously screened on Tongan TV, featured in global film festivals and academic conferences, and won the Society of Visual Anthropology Best Feature Film Award. Mike is a member of the Tongan Research Association and the RAI Medical Anthropology Committee, and has served on the ASA (Association of Social Anthropologist of the Commonwealth) and ESFO (European Society for Oceanists) boards.
Dr Poltorak was a Lecturer and then Senior Lecturer at the School of Anthropology and Conservation from 2009 to 2020. He found his pedagogical vocation in visual anthropology in 2010 when invited to revitalise the MA Visual Anthropology programme and undergraduate modules. He embraced visual anthropology to integrate his research and teaching with a passion for an integrative, publicly- and policy-engaged anthropology.
Mike's teaching was much appreciated by students and won faculty, university and national teaching prizes. He inspired students to use video to better understand their relationship to the contemporary world and to have an impact on issues that mean something to them. The UK Visual Anthropology website features many student films created at Kent. Collaborative working and peer-teaching, rooted in the literature of phenomenological anthropology, are central to Dr Poltorak’s teaching, both as method and as a way into the subject matter. His interactive lectures and drama-based activities maximise creativity and discussion of the potential of a ‘shared anthropology’.
Mike has organised public screenings and film events to inspire students and build their capacity to appreciate how media is received. The Film and Advocacy series in 2011 and 2012 encouraged discussion across the boundaries of anthropology, activism and film-making. In sharing his practice at Kent, both nationally and internationally, Dr Poltorak strives to enable students to move and experience being creative and self-aware teachers. In 2014, Mike gained the Best Teacher award organised by Kent Union. A video is available of his acceptance speech.
"Each class felt like being introduced to colourful and inspirational new worlds. His friendly, artistic and creative approach ... made my time at Kent very enriching, heartening and certainly memorable."
Dr Mike Poltorak’s doctoral fieldwork, based at University College London from 1998-2000, explored traditional healing and psychiatric treatment in Tonga for mental illness. It involved fieldwork in Tongatapu and Vava’u with traditional healers, health workers, doctors and community members. Publications have explored the ‘truth’ of mental illness, healing efficacy and self-efficacy, interdisciplinarity and mental illness, and the development of a Tongan public psychiatry.
Using Tongan indigenous concepts as analytic tools, and paying rigorous attention to particular cases of healing, is part of Mike's aim to contribute to changes in health policy, health communication and outcomes in Tonga and New Zealand. His use of video as an integral part of research and culturally sensitive collaboration culminated in the production of the documentary film, The Healer and the Psychiatrist (2019). As a visual intervention, the film also intends to contribute to wider debates in Global Mental Health.
The documentary won the Society of Visual Anthropology (SVA) Film Festival’s Best Feature Film Award 2020 and has been screened in numerous film festivals, including the Hawaii International Film Festival 2020, and academic conferences worldwide. Collaboration with Aotearoa and Tonga-based NGOs will ensure the film will be used for health improvement in the Tongan community. The allied transmedia ‘Project Pouono’ is an attempt to encourage talanoa and decolonise discussion on important questions of health communication and potential collaboration between healers and psychiatrists globally.
Dr Poltorak’s first documentary with the Tongan comedian Tevita Koloamatangi was released in 2010 and has contributed to the use of comedy in youth projects and performances as well as making the subject's comedy accessible to a global audience, including second and third generations Tongans. Fun(d)raising: The Secret of Tongan Comedy is an intervention into the cultural politics of representation of Tonga, through looking at the motivations of comedians and the focus of their comedy. Its origins lie in a desire for epistemologically and ethnographically led film-making emergent of living with people for long periods, and making films that have community value.
These principles are demonstrated in One Week West of Molkom, a documentary response to Four Miles North of Molkom, that focuses on volunteerism in the Swedish intentional community of Angsbacka, and in the documentary Five Ways In, which explores the dance and movement form of contact improvisation at an international festival in Freiburg.
A concern with epistemological dialogue led to policy-engaged research on resistance to vaccination in the UK. This prompted Mike's commitment to bringing anthropological insights to issues of public and policy concern. He has written on the need for interdisciplinarity in addressing rising rates of mental illness in Tonga and advocated for greater understanding of the role and commitments of traditional healers.
As a Research Fellow, Dr Poltorak researched parental engagement with the MMR vaccination in Brighton and Hove (University of Sussex/IDS, 2003-2004), part of a project aimed at generating comparative insights into science–society relations in the context of current crises in vaccination research and delivery regimes in the UK and West Africa. The resulting, widely-cited publication gave an ethnographically grounded explanation for the wider contexts of resistance to the MMR vaccination that addressed popular media misrepresentations of misinformed or ignorant parents.
Mike is currently dedicated to further writing and film productions in relation to the documentary The Healer and the Psychiatrist, to ensure it realises the intention to contribute to the improvement of health outcomes in Tonga and in the Tongan diaspora. Future research and collaboration inspired by Tongans’ radical sociality will focus on (a) social health and eco-villages; and (b) cases of radical inclusivity for migrants in contemporary cultures and in history.