This film was released in this country last year, but I’ve only just arrived and needless to say it hasn’t been out many other places — not that I think it wouldn’t do well, just that I suppose an eight-part portmanteau about versions of the titular character, seen at various stages of life on various Pacific Islands, isn’t the most marketable. It’s great though, in my opinion, the best kind of thing you can do with the format.
As a progression from 2017’s Waru (which was by the same production company), this Polynesian portmanteau film makes a lot of sense. In a way it’s less narratively tight because it’s not following a single storyline through all its short films, but in many ways it’s more interesting, because there are themes reflected in each of the separate pieces which broaden the story. It still ties everything together neatly by having the same cinematographer work on all of them (Drew Sturge), who shoots almost all as a single unbroken take. That’s not to say there aren’t any specifics, because each of the sections has its own sense of space, and the title cards make it clear that these are set on different islands, so we can’t take all of the rituals and customs we see as part of a single continuity. That said, they do very much work together, and I imagine there are some common roots across the region in, say, the prominence of fishing as a rite of passage (the “Solomon Islands” section is set entirely in a canoe as our 16-year-old Vai desperately tries to get her bait on the line) or the importance of ancestors (seen most clearly in “Samoa”, where Fiona Collins’s Vai leads what appears to be a funerary procession and literally witnesses her ancestors join in from beside their graves, one of the more moving moments in the whole film).
So it tells a generational story, from the young kid in “Fiji” through to Hinetu Dell reflecting on mortality as the film closes, but it’s also based around themes of the sea and water, which makes sense given its pan-Pacific Islands perspective. If Waru was land-based (and land rights have by necessity been a key theme in Māori history), then Vai is about the power of the ocean. This means that the “NZ Born Samoan” section is probably the weakest thematically, but in a sense the political point it’s making about the academy and about the colonising influence of (white, European) priorities suggests that the drama of the character there is her very lack of connection to the sustenance of the ocean. Conversely in “Tonga”, though our young characters are surrounded by water, they have trouble sourcing any which they can safely drink, and its sustenance is threatened by industrial fishing in “Kuki ‘Airani”. All these stories around a similarly-named titular character become in a sense stories of the same person but as they might be shaped in each of these spaces, but for all this, there’s an underlying hopefulness that comes through clearly, the hope provided by continuity with one’s roots, and which I think marks an advance on Waru.
Directors/Writers Nicole Whippy, Sharon Whippy, ‘Ofa-Ki-Levuka Guttenbeil-Likiliki, Matasila Freshwater, Amberley Jo Aumua, Mīria George, Marina Alofagia McCartney, Dianna Fuemana and Becs Arahanga; Cinematographer Drew Sturge; Starring Ro Mereani Adi Tuimatanisiga, Ar-Ramadi Longopoa, Betsy Luitolo, Agnes Pele, Evotia-Rose Araiti, Fiona Collins, Maliaga Erick, Hinetu Dell; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), Wellington, Wednesday 23 December 2020.