The director of the first Samoan feature film talks to Peter Calder about capturing the rhythms of his culture on film.
You could hardly blame Tusi Tamasese for being anxious about tonight's screening of his first feature film O Le Tulafale (The Orator). It's taking place in the Magik Cinema complex in the Samoan capital of Apia after a reception organised by the New Zealand High Commission. And the audience will be somewhat more fearsome than the world's critics, who saw it (and were enthusiastic) at its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival a month ago. It's also been selected as New Zealand's first submission for entry into the Academy Awards' Foreign Language Film category.
The movie is about a simple taro farmer, Saili, who happens to be a dwarf, who lives with his wife, Vaaiga, and daughter Litia, in a small village. When figures from Vaaiga's past unexpectedly come calling, Saili has to find the voice to speak up for what he loves and assume a stature out of all proportion to his physique.
It's a story saturated in its setting and in the Samoan way of life, understood by the term fa'a Samoa. And Tamasese knows the Apia crowd will be hard to please because they will be looking at the first Samoan-language feature film written and directed by a Samoan.
"Yes, it does feel pretty scary," he told TimeOut in an interview before he headed north for the festivities. "The film is my image of what I see of growing up in Samoa. Some people might say no, because different people have their own perspective and I am a little bit worried about that.
"Actually, I don't really want that title - the first - because it comes with a lot of expectation. But I am very honoured to have it."
The Wellington-based 35-year-old, who hails from the village of Vaimoso on the western outskirts of Apia, came to this country when he was 19 and has, in a sense, been working towards this moment ever since. He studied creative writing and screen production at Victoria and Waikato universities and came up with a short film, Va Tapuia (Sacred Spaces), which showed in last year's main film festival.
It's easy to see in the 15-minute film that he's rehearsing for the long one. The story, of a taro farmer whose grief is literally poisoning his crops, has something of the folk tale about it, but it's the stylistic similarities that are much more striking: the languorous and observant pace and the depiction of the local culture that is entirely uncompromising to the outside observer.
Neither the short film nor the feature is hard to follow - quite the contrary - but the film-maker shows no sign of wanting to take the viewer by the hand and explain what is going on.
Anyone who has visited Samoa will have encountered the few minutes of evening prayer time (called sa), when everything stops, but the uninitiated may wonder at the couple of occasions in the film when everyone's sitting round doing nothing. Likewise, the custom of ritual atonement, called ifoga, is an important dramatic element in the movie; only the dimmest won't work out what's going on, but the point is that the film doesn't seek to explain it - it just is.
"It's a bit like a tour," Tamasese agrees. "You get thrown into this place and you are seeing things. I know it's a fine line between creating confusion and curiosity but I wanted that feel. I didn't want to explain things. I wanted people to just try and appreciate.
"There are subtle hints in there as to what the sa and ifoga are about but I tried to minimise that because I'm a kind of visual guy."
That last comment is something of an understatement. Thanks in large part to the almost edibly gorgeous cinematography of Leon Narbey, the film is a sumptuously moody visual experience: the opening shot, of rain on a mountain, might have been painted by McCahon; water runs mercury-silver off taro leaves; tiny details like a snail on a gravestone are lingered over lovingly. The sound design is equally precise and evocative.
Importantly, it's a film of great patience and watchfulness. Shots of 10 seconds are the rule, not the exception; you can feel your heartbeat slow as you watch it.
"The stillness and the silence were important to me," says Tamasese. "The world in Samoa is very laid-back and people don't move that much. But if people are sitting, there is a silent conversation going on. That's how it was for me growing up in Samoa. It's always a conversation even when people are not talking.
"I wanted to create that, the subtleties, the postures and the minute movements that are full of meaning. And you have to take the time when you are shooting that to let it come through. If you do it in a Hollywood way, cut-cut-cut, you would lose a lot of that. You won't get the sense of life in Samoa."
Tamasese's original story arose from what he calls "my fascination of growing up".
"In Samoa you see all these graves in the front of houses. My dad is buried in front of my house, and to me when you bury a loved one like that, it seems like a challenge.
"You're challenging death and saying it cannot break the bond with the living. I was always fascinated by that."
He was also taken by the imagery of "a talking chief" [the English version of the title's tulafale]. In Samoa, a tulafale is an important figure, usually chosen for his imposing figure and sonorous voice. He even speaks in a form of language whose syntax and vocabulary is little understood by the majority of Samoans.
Thus the film's driving idea, that Saili has to surmount his physical size to achieve what he wants, is deeply rooted in the culture.
"I always saw the talking chief as someone who is big and tall and has a witty tongue," says Tamasese. "I wanted to strip that away and see what was underneath it. That's where the idea of a small person came from."
Not surprisingly, the film-maker enjoyed plenty of support when he was shooting in his homeland. In particular, he singles out his extended family for praise.
"My family was the invisible hand in Samoa. When things weren't working, I would get a phone call and someone would say 'it's been resolved'. My mum and brothers and sisters and aunties and uncles and in-laws: they were the ones who were watching my back and seeing if there was any trouble."
Who: Tusi Tamasese, director
What: The Orator, the first feature film in the Samoan language
When: Opens at cinemas Thursday