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How the film Vai shines a new light on wāhine of the Pacific

Each film is about a character called Vai and is set in a different Pacific country, such as the Solomon Islands. Photo/Supplied

The producers of Waru, the portmanteau movie by wāhine film-makers, have helmed a Pasifika project based on the same idea.

When producers Kerry Warkia and Kiel McNaughton released Waru, their ground-breaking 2017 feature in which eight female Māori directors each told a 10-minute story centred on the death of the same child, it was hailed as a major achievement. The powerful portmanteau film achieved more for female Māori representation in film than the New Zealand industry had managed in years.

But Warkia and McNaughton were just getting warmed up. Their new movie, Vai, the first of two planned follow-ups, has nine female Pacific-Kiwi film-makers writing and directing eight connected shorts filmed in seven Pacific countries: Fiji, Tonga, Solomon Islands, Kuki Airani (Cook Islands), Samoa, Niue and Aotearoa New Zealand (twice).

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Each of Waru’s segments told a story of what happened during the same 10-minute period, but Vai’s tells the life stories of eight female Polynesian and Melanesian characters, each named Vai, in different stages of their lives, from seven to 80-plus.

As in the earlier film, each segment takes place in real time in an (apparent) single tracking shot. After Warkia and McNaughton realised Waru’s experimental storytelling approach had worked, they set their sights on making a sequel that would allow female Pasifika film-makers to tell female-centred Pasifika stories.

The pair went about recruiting the talent to write and direct each of the eight shorts. Their search attracted 69 potential candidates, and the final decisions demonstrated Warkia and McNaughton’s desire to reflect as much of New Zealand’s Pasifika population as possible.

Cook Islands. Photo/Supplied

“That’s one of the reasons we chose to put New Zealand-born Samoans into the story,” says McNaughton of Amberley Jo Aumua’s segment set in an Auckland tertiary institution.

Most of the Vai film-makers are based in New Zealand, though Kiwi-born ‘Ofa Guttenbeil-Likiliki lives in Tonga. Like Aumua, many of the other Vai directors, including Marina Alofagia McCartney (Samoa), Becs Arahanga (Aotearoa), animator Matasila Freshwater (Solomon Islands) and playwright Dianna Fuemana (Niue), have already made short films – Fuemana’s 2017 short film, Sunday Fun Day, was produced by her screen-actor partner Jay Ryan and she travelled from their home in Los Angeles to Niue to make it.

Outrageous Fortune actress Nicole Whippy (Fiji) collaborated with her sister Sharon on her segment. It was her first time behind the camera, as it was for playwright and theatre director Mīria George, who is of Māori and Cook Islands descent.

Niue. Photo/Supplied

Each segment leaps forward between eight and 12 years in the ages of the Vai characters. To hash out how the story and themes would loosely fit together, the film-makers gathered for a five-day writers’ retreat, a method also used on Waru.

“Everybody comes to it feeling a little bit terrified and a little bit unsure of what will come out of it,” says Warkia. “There are some intense moments, some breakthrough moments. A lot of the stuff you’re discussing is about identity, so we always have lots of tissues around.”

New Zealand has a presence in all of the resulting stories.

“It wasn’t anything that we put on any of the writers,” says McNaughton. “We have the creative framework that we offer up, and so it came from the storytelling.”

Samoa. Photo/Supplied

Warkia: “And I think there are lots of beautiful, complicated relationships with their own islands and with New Zealand and with Pacific islands in all of us together.”

Shooting in multiple countries presented logistical challenges: two production teams leap-frogged each other around the islands on a schedule that was five weeks long but had only eight days of shooting.

“We would land, eat with the local cast and crew and the director who had been rehearsing. The following day would be a full camera-rehearsal day, and the next day we would shoot, says McNaughton.

Vai’s world premiere was at the Berlin Film Festival in February, and its first North American screening was at the influential SXSW Film Festival in Austin, Texas, with some of the writer-directors in attendance.

Aotearoa. Photo/Supplied

“It went really well,” Fuemana says. “It felt like people were more honest with their reaction and their connection to the film, because there were more laughing sounds and just sounds in general. Whereas in a place like Berlin, everyone was so quiet, you could hear a pin drop.”

In Fuemana’s segment, the 64-year-old Vai advises her granddaughter about the future.

“I really wanted to bolster and promote the women on our island,” says Fuemana. “It’s an older community. There’s only 1700 people in Niue, and there are about 30,000 [Niueans] in New Zealand. We are at a point where our language is being lost because so many Niueans are born in New Zealand. I really wanted to shine a light on the island, because I think it is very special that we do have a place that we can go to that our traditions and our languages are kept.”

In George’s segment – the most overtly political of the eight – a thirtyish Vai protests against exploitative fishing practices in the Cooks.

Expatriate Samoan community in New Zealand. Photo/Supplied

“I wanted to contribute to a conversation that was already happening on my islands,” says George. “I wanted it to be for our young people, and for our aunties and mothers and grandmothers. I wanted the young ones from the Cook Islands to see it and feel excited and inspired about their voices and their contribution to change. Because back home there’s a massive conversation happening at the moment about changing the name of the Cook Islands. Which is so exciting.”

The film-makers had only one day to rehearse and one day to shoot, a huge ask considering the difficulty of making each segment look as if it had been captured in a single shot.

“I heard other people saying, ‘Wow, that’s a huge technical challenge,’” says Guttenbeil-Likiliki, whose film follows a 13-year-old Vai who has a daily chore of getting drinking water for her home in a Tongan village. “I never saw it as a challenge, because I know the resilience of Pacific women. I know we can get a whole lot of shit done. We multi-task all our lives.”

The youngest Vai, from Fiji. Photo/Supplied

Guttenbeil-Likiliki believes in Vai’s mission statement. “The story of Pacific people has always been told through other lenses and I think it’s important that we are given an opportunity as Pasifika film-makers, female Pasifika film-makers, to tell stories through our lens. Because it’s never happened before.”

Warkia and McNaughton are already planning the next phase: Kāinga will be a movie by a collective of pan-Asian Kiwi women.

In the meantime, there is Vai, a film that is occasionally angry but less confronting than its predecessor.

“Yes, we did want to make a gentler movie than Waru,” says McNaughton,”but the power of both films comes from the authenticity of the film-makers and their stories.” 

Vai opens in cinemas on April 4.

This article was first published in the April 6, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.