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For My Father's Kingdom: A tender portrait of a Tongan patriarch

FOR MY FATHER’S KINGDOM
directed by Vea Mafile‘o and Jeremiah Tauamiti

Co-director Vea Mafile‘o’s documentary about her father's devotion to his church is filled with honesty and sacrifice.

It’s rare to find a documentary about something small: a little life, so often shunned or ignored. But pay attention to the wisdom that comes from Saia Mafile‘o’s lips, for it is worth more than every fawning celebrity portrait ever made.

From the first few frames, we understand that Vea Mafile‘o’s study of her Tongan pensioner father, Saia, has a rather ironic title: the “kingdom” of which she speaks is a small South Auckland house with a kumara patch, and a carport turned into a smoking shed. Saia’s only job is a paper run at 2am, all so that he can give and give again to the church. Misinale – an annual church celebration involving the practice of tithing that would gall an unknowing Pālangi viewer – sees Saia cough up thousands of dollars, money he does not have.

There’s tension between tradition and modernity, between the individual and the communal. Vea gently (very gently) criticises this practice for the strain it puts on families with no means. The church insists on self-sacrifice, even self-abnegation, but not for the enrichment of its ministers. It is for the parishioners and their families in times of need.

Read more: The almighty dollar: How church tithing affected this family

Yet, as the film begins to touch the fault-lines of the Mafile‘o family, reaching back into a fractured past, we come to understand that the co-director is referring to a mental kingdom, a map of the morals and values that her father holds dear: humility, dedication, forgiveness – a richer inheritance.

The family follow him back to Tonga for the 150th anniversary of his old school, a celebration that proves to be a catalyst: long-suppressed emotions come rushing back, and his children begin to understand his sacrifices, and his devotion to church and community.

One of the most moving scenes – of which there are many – comes towards the end, as Saia and his son, Robert, sit in a bare farming shed. Their conversation is conducted in the somewhat stunted tones of the male heart-to-heart, and ends with “How about a cup of tea, eh?” But underneath the rugged unsentimentality is a sense of profound honesty and restitution.

For My Father’s Kingdom is a tender, generous, at times almost unbearably intimate story of a person – of a whole world – so often obscured.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★★

This article was first published in the September 7, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.