America is currently experiencing a historic surge of protests igniting a cultural awakening and racial reckoning. Shorts, documentaries, animation and features by and about the Pacific Islands’ indigenous peoples are being highlighted at the 36th annual Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. Since 1983 Visual Communications, a nonprofit organization, has presented LAAPFF, dedicated to its mission “to develop and support the voices of Asian American and Pacific Islander filmmakers and media artists who empower communities and challenge perspectives.” This year due to the pandemic the Festival is online.
To be sure, the plethora of pictures presented at LAAPFF are by Asian and Asian-American filmmakers with roots in countries such as the People’s Republic of China, India, etc., with populations that vastly outnumber the peoples of Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia. Nevertheless, LAAPFF provides a valuable perch for works by and about Oceanic talents and topics in Los Angeles, a global capital of cinema. The current crop of Pacific Islander pictures demonstrates a new maturity and creativity in Native filmmaking, in terms of content and style. The topics considered include homelessness, LGBTQ, anti-colonialism, menstruation, space travel and more. As a film historian who has been writing about South Seas Cinema since the early 1980s, today’s Tidal Wave of Indigenous Cinema being presented by LAAPFF is very impressive and exciting to behold as Native filmmakers expand the film genre’s parameters.
Here are capsule reviews of short films from Hawaii, Samoa, Aotearoa/New Zealand, Marquesas, etc., at LAAPFF, which is taking place through Oct. 31.
Liliu: Samoa’s Decolonization Struggle
When I lived in Tafitoala, Upolu, the village’s high chief, Ale Sola (I believe that is the correct spelling?), used to tell me about his exploits in the Mau, which was an indigenous resistance movement against the New Zealand colonizers who ruled Samoa in his youth. The independence movement’s slogan was “Samoa Mo Samoa,” which translates as “Samoa for the Samoans.” In 1962 Samoa became the first Pacific Island to experience decolonization.
From a film history perspective, it’s interesting to compareLiliu with a classic that was actually lensed on location in Samoa in the 1920s, celebrated filmmaker Robert Flaherty’s Moana of the South Seas.
I always thought Ali’s stories would make for a good movie and NZ-born Samoan writer/director Jeremiah Tauamiti has taken a stab at telling this tale onscreen in Liliu. Shot on location in Samoa, and set in 1920 in what is called in a title “The New Zealand Territory of Western Samoa,” the plot consists of soldiers bringing defendants to a colonial kangaroo court beneath a thatch roof in a fale (hut) in the Polynesian countryside. There a be-wigged paternalistic palagi (Caucasian) magistrate (Peter Hayden) passes judgment over Samoans being tried for crimes against the colonizers and the colonial state. The alleged infractions include trespassing and non-payment of taxes imposed by NZ, which as part of the British Commonwealth, is still reigned over by the monarch thousands of miles away in London.
The judge is aided by a court interpreter, Solo (Vito Vito, who acted in the 2016 feature Three Wise Cousins and 2019’s Take Home Pay with both of these comedies made by Stallone Vaiaoga-Ioasa). I don’t want to reveal details but His (dis)Honor, who personifies the NZ colonial state, surprisingly encounters defiance that embodies the struggle against foreign domination.
From a film history perspective, it’s interesting to compare Liliu with a classic that was actually lensed on location in Samoa in the 1920s, celebrated filmmaker Robert Flaherty’s Moana of the South Seas. The film was hailed as a great work of art and landmark in the development of the documentary, although it is arguably more akin to a docudrama (but that debate is beyond the scope of this review). In Moana Savaii is depicted as a paradise, and there is no mention of the Mau movement for independence from NZ or of the influenza epidemic which via the bungling, thoughtless NZ authorities unleashed with tragi consequences on Western Samoa due to their wild incompetence.
In her confrontation with the racist judge, Nua (Ana Tuisila) seems to allude to the flu epidemic of circa 1918 when she mentions that her husband was “killed.” Shot in a straight forward style, Liliu is only 17 minutes long but hopefully Taumiti will have the opportunity to create a feature length film that dramatizes the decolonization cause. In 2019 Taumiti directed a feature-length documentary about an idiot brainwashed by the missionaries’ religion at Tonga, For My Father’s Kingdom (see my review here). Hopefully soon this talented filmmaker will get a crack at making a full-length feature.
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The Illustrated Islanders
Colonialism sought to “civilize” savages, which included not only banning many indigenous cultural practices but even Native peoples’ presentation of self in everyday life. As part of this acculturation, the Polynesian art form of traditional tattooing was prohibited and at least two films in LAAPFF deal with the tattoo (which, BTW, played a central role in Flaherty’s 1926 film, wherein the titular Moana undergoes the age-old Samoan knee-to-navel tattoo process). Directed by Heretu Tetahiotupa and Christophe Cordier, the 55-minute Patutiki: The Guardians of the Marquesan Tattoo is about practitioners of this inky art of the Marquesas, the archipelago located 700 miles north of Tahiti in French-occupied Polynesia, where tattooing may have reached its Oceanic apotheosis.
https://filmfreeway.com/ quotes Heretu Tetahiotupa, who was born in the Marquesas (I believe at Nuku Hiva), as explaining: “People’s attraction to Marquesan tattoo is mostly aesthetic, but there’s much more to patutiki than its distinctive designs. We wanted people to become aware of the spiritual dimension and how each motif was a key to understanding how the ancients perceived the world. People are drawn to these symbols without knowing why. The Marquesans see patutiki as a magical manifestation of their predecessors’ past. For more than a thousand years, master tattoo artists and shamans connected to the spirit of our ancestors, re-created rituals transferring mana every time they practiced their art.”
Directed by Mick Andrews and David Atkinson Tā Moko – Behind the Tattooed Face takes place in a marae (Maori meeting place) where the Polynesians Bernard and Sapphire separately go to undergo the laborious, painful process of getting facial tattoos in order to reconnect with their ancestral traditions. It is a communal undertaking filled filled with onlookers, as Bernard’s inky designs cover his whole face, while Sapphire literally takes it on her chin. Interestingly, the tattooist doesn’t use a shark’s tooth, squid’s ink, adze or other traditional implements, but quite contemporary equipment to render his illustrations on the Islanders in this 12 minute, conventionally made short shot on location in Aotearoa/NZ.
Kalewa: Oceanic Astronaut
With Kalewa, independent Hawaii filmmaker Mitchel Viernes is reminiscent of Jules Vernes, as he takes the South Seas Cinema genre into outer space. Kainoa Kalewa (Michael Hake) is a Hawaiian astronaut in this futuristic film that I suspect rather cleverly uses the Big Island’s volcanic, smoky location to great effect, evoking an otherworldly ambiance. The notion that Hawaiians could be astronauts is totally plausible – their ancient forebears were among the planet’s greatest explorers, sailing across the vast reachs of the Pacific, and Kealakekua, Hawaii’s Ellison Onizuka flew aboard NASA’s space shuttle missions. For the akamai (in the know) viewer, Kainoa’s name may be a wink and a nod towards Hawaii’s greatest living navigator, Nainoa Thompson of the fabled voyaging canoe Hōkūle'a.
In addition to sci fi genre conventions writer/director Viernes injects a psychological dimension into his story. Kainoa’s mission to a galaxy far, far away is also a metaphor for the distance between him and his father David, movingly played by veteran Hawaiian actor and entertainer Kimo Kahoana. Like Kimo, other cast members of Kalewa, Danielle Zalopony and Jason Quinn, appear in more films screened this year at LAAPFF, notably the excellent feature Waikiki. Viernes’ 17 minute Kalewa is – well – clever, on multiple levels and like some of the Festival’s others shorts, leaves the hungry viewer with an appetite to see more. Hopefully Viernes will get the opportunity to shoot a full-length feature and conjure up his own mysterious islands.
Many of the Pacific Islander shorts can be seen through Oct. 31 at LAAPFF’s Pacific Cinewaves pay-what-you-can link.
Film historian/critic Ed Rampell lived in the Pacific Islands for 23 years, including about half that time at Makaha, Oahu, was featured in the 2005 Australian documentary Hula Girls: Imagining Paradise, and co-authored three movie history books about South Seas Cinema, including The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.