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Vai is a heartfelt expression of pan-Pacific solidarity

Nine film-makers’ reflections on the lives of Pasifika women creates a stirring drama.

Two years ago, a small but urgent New Zealand film called Waru stunned and stirred audiences with its anthology of eight stories, each shot in a single take, united around a common theme: the death of a young boy. All were directed by Māori women. Its stylistic freshness was matched by an intense emotive power.

Vai is something of a cousin to Waru, woven from the same cloth, made by the same producers. Here, eight scenes written and directed by nine Pasifika women are set in seven island nations. This time, we actually see the titular character, Vai (which, despite differences of language, means “water” throughout Polynesia). The film begins when she is aged eight in Fiji, refusing to be bundled off to Aotearoa with her mother, and follows her through to her final chapter as an 80-year-old kuia.

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Each episode contends with the idea of home, of belonging. Throughout, “New Zealand” is a name sometimes uttered with fear and apprehension, or conjured up as a distant, imperceptible land. It’s a place of prosperity, perhaps, but where deep ties of family and community are less firmly felt. “We will all be forgotten,” Vai’s grandmother weeps.

What astounds is the unity of voice: that eight stories, each with their own approach, theme and set of characters, can be assembled into a coherent and stirring whole. Together, they deliver a unity, a confluence of existence, of people bound together amid turbulent seas. It’s an expression of pan-Pacific solidarity, the distinctions of each culture elevating the whole.

Voice is critical to several scenes – in song or as a defiant shout – as is its absence. Two of the best moments are those in which Vai barely speaks at all: one in Samoa in which she struggles with a ritual she feels is not her own; the other in the Solomon Islands, a melancholy moment among bobbing boats, laden with longing and regret.

Though not as indignant or visceral as Waru, Vai is still astonishing and heartfelt and essential viewing.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★★1/2

Video: Vendetta Films

This article was first published in the April 13, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.