The first Samoan-language feature, The Orator, debuted to acclaim at the Venice Film Festival this week. Helen Barlow reports.

Director Tusi Tamasese spoke almost too quietly while presenting his film at the Venice Film Festival, something which might seem strange given that his film is titled The Orator. The Samoan-born, Wellington-based film-maker admitted to feeling nervous, even if he had no need to be as his film, the first Samoan-language feature, had been strongly received by critics.

Maria Pia Fusco from La Republica, Italy's leading newspaper, declared herself a fan of the film to TimeOut.

"The film is so ingenuous and innocent, telling a story that's very interesting and tender," she said. "It's a kind of lesson of civilisation; about how people should behave but we have sometimes forgotten. At the beginning you see this unusual leading man and you grow to love him, his face, his strength, his suffering, his generosity, and you are there with him. This is a feeling that only a director who knows from experience can create."

Tumasese, now 35, left Samoa at the age of 18. "My mum sent me over to New Zealand because I was getting into trouble," he explains. "I was just a typical frustrated teen. I was working in my dad's mechanic shop and I bred my own pigs because I wanted to be a farmer. When my neighbour ate all my pigs I left."


As the result of his misspent youth he failed to gain a scholarship to study in New Zealand and found work here picking tomatoes instead.

"My brother was at university on a scholarship and he told me I should study too. Eventually I got lucky and studied film at the University of Waikato in Hamilton. I did a double major in political science, just in case I failed to make films," he chuckles.

After his short film Sacred Spaces screened at the 2010 NZ Film Festival and then at festivals around the world, Tamasese was able to make his first feature. It would be a story of courage, forgiveness and love, following Saili, a dwarf taro farmer, who musters the strength to stand up to his wife's burly brother and his two intimidating friends. He ultimately attempts to reclaim his father's chiefly status, even if the current ageing village chief does not believe he has the physique or the oratory skill required.

Initially Tamasese, himself from Samoan royalty, had cast a Samoan comedian who then pulled out. So he travelled to Samoa and placed radio and TV ads.

"The only calls we had were from people who were six feet tall. They'd walk in, 'Oh I'm a dwarf!' Eventually we took a boat to another island and met a 16-year-old short boy, who wasn't a dwarf, though he said there was a real dwarf living down the road."

A taro farmer and carpenter, Fa'Afiaula Sagote had heard the radio announcements though had been too scared to respond, Tamasese recalls. "Once we met he said it was like a gift from God, that he was meant to do this. The script had to be changed a bit as he was shorter and he finds it hard to walk. I had to prove this beautiful Samoan woman would be attracted to him."

Now Sagote, 30, who with his acting fee has bought a taxi for his brother to drive, is set to hit the publicity trail.

"We took him to New Zealand to take photos," notes Tamasese. "It was his first time out of Samoa and he loved it. Initially he didn't trust anyone. He's had a pretty tough life of being teased by his younger brothers and cousins. I think it's been good for him."


The $2.3 million production received 90 per cent of its funding from the New Zealand Film Commission and 10 per cent from the Samoan Government. Peter Jackson made his post-production facilities available, something he regularly does for local productions.

"There's no industry in Samoa so we had to take everything there and we had to wait four days for the rushes to come back from New Zealand."

The film's producer, Catherine Fitzgerald, provided huge support. "Catherine was a kind of script consultant; she was basically looking after everything. Our director of photography, Leon Narbey (Whale Rider) is very experienced and he was great to bounce ideas off. I was very fortunate."

Tamasese also thanks the NZFC.

"The film commission took a big risk on this film. I'm still shocked how they could support something like this. It was never easy. The weather was destroying everything during shooting - at home it's so unpredictable. It will rain one minute and be very sunny the next. It's very, very hot. I'm really grateful that I picked the right crew as they endured a great deal."

So it's hotter than sweltering Venice in the current heatwave?

"Add a few more degrees and add mosquitoes and cockroaches and centipedes and hot, hot sun - and then you have some idea!"


What: The Orator (O Le Tulafale), directed by Tusi Tamasese

When: Opens in cinemas on October 6

- TimeOut