Mercenary: A tale of two nations

By Helen Barlow

Rugby players make good actors, writes Helen Barlow.
Toki Pilioko and team-mates in Mercenary.
Toki Pilioko and team-mates in Mercenary.

Rugby players are a notoriously camera-shy bunch. With the exception of Sonny Bill Williams, who loves nothing more than to play up for the cameras, most would rather take a tackle from Brodie Retallick than face a waiting microphone and camera.

So the idea of trying to cast an entire feature film with rugby players, instead of actors, was certainly ambitious. Yet that's exactly what French documentary-maker Sacha Wolff did, in his debut dramatic feature Mercenary.

More surprisingly, he quickly discovered that rugby players make for rather good actors.

Soane stays in France, where he is pumped full of steroids in an attempt to sell him to different clubs in the film Mercenary.
Soane stays in France, where he is pumped full of steroids in an attempt to sell him to different clubs in the film Mercenary.

"Rugby players are used to having coaches tell them what to do, so it's the same, but they also know how to be very concentrated," Wolff says.

"Actors find it difficult waiting all day and then having to put everything in this one minute, but rugby players are good at that."

Set in the world of French rugby, Wolff's film doesn't take place amid the lucrative professional clubs like Toulon, where Sonny Bill once played, or Paris Racing Metro, where Dan Carter is the current star. It's set in Nowheresville rural France, where the film's protagonist, Soane (Toki Pilioko), tries to make the most of an awful situation.

Imported from New Caledonia's Wallis Island, the naive youngster arrives in France, only to be told at the airport that he's not tall enough or heavy enough and should just go home.

But Soane can't return after his violent, alcoholic father Sosefo (Mikaele Tuugahala) disowned him for leaving.

Instead, Soane stays in France, where he is pumped full of steroids in an attempt to sell him to different clubs.

As Wolff explains, the players are little more than meat for sale.

French director Sascha Wolff directs the film Mercenary, starring Toki Pilioko.
French director Sascha Wolff directs the film Mercenary, starring Toki Pilioko.

"They're exchangeable," says Wolff. "When I was preparing the movie, I met a guy who told me when he goes to Wallis Island or to Noumea he just looks for the biggest or the strongest. And for the youngest - and that was the first sentence of my movie."

Of course, when these hulking young men venture to France nobody knows where they're from. They're assumed to be Maori.

"We speak a similar language," explains Pilioko, a 20-year-old who weighs 111kg and grew up in Noumea. "I believe the people from nearby Futuna Island are descended from Samoans. I know more Tongans and Samoans than Maori who play in France."

But while Pilioko provided inspiration for the story, he says his experience hasn't been as difficult as that depicted in the film.

"I left my family for rugby and I've had problems on the level of rugby too, but I've had the support of my uncle in Lyon and my cousin who plays with a big Paris club," he explains.

Wolff spent six months in New Caledonia before making the film, travelling around and getting to know Pilioko's family.

French director Sascha Wolff directs Mercenary.
French director Sascha Wolff directs Mercenary.

"I couldn't make this movie without going there and getting to know the Wallisian people," he says. "I asked them what movie they feel represents them and they always told me Once Were Warriors, but it's not their situation. even if it's close.

"Toki had a very good explanation. He said, 'When we are kids we always have the authority of our fathers and our mothers and we are very inhibited. We just need a little trigger when we drink and everything comes out. We can't control it'."

Likewise, New Zealanders will identify with Mercenary's story, which focuses on the father-son relationship and the breakdown of traditional indigenous values.

"The father is linked to a world that's disappearing," says Wolff. "When you are in Noumea, the Wallisian kids don't speak Wallisian anymore; they only speak French. It's very hard for people to live with this form of acculturation.

It's set in Nowheresville rural France, where the film's protagonist, Soane (Toki Pilioko), tries to make the most of an awful situation in the film Mercenary.
It's set in Nowheresville rural France, where the film's protagonist, Soane (Toki Pilioko), tries to make the most of an awful situation in the film Mercenary.

"When I met Toki he told me, 'I'm a bit schizophrenic, because I'm not me when I'm there and I'm not me when I'm here. I'm me on the plane."

But while Pilioko says he enjoyed the acting experience, he's not about to turn his back on rugby. He's a huge fan of SBW and lights up at the mere mention of his name.

"He passes the ball so well! He's a complete player, he's great in defence and he's like a machine. He's the Brad Pitt of rugby!"

And if Wolff is right, maybe he too has a future in acting.

Low down

What: Mercenary
When and where: For session times see nziff.co.nz

- TimeOut

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