Friday, October 21, 2011

The Orator

My wife and I went to see the Samoan film, The Orator, this afternoon.   Before I note anything that other people have written about it, a few thoughts on my own reactions to it. 

Firstly, it's a very moving film - ultimately.   Initially, it's quiet, slow and seems hardly to be telling a story.  Yet each scene contributes to the whole, and in spite of the gentle pace of the movie, little time is actually wasted. 

For palangi, it's something of a difficult movie: we're thrust into a culture that's nothing like what we know about Samoans in New Zealand.  This island culture (to me) is harsh and even brutal, with heavy stones being thrown back and forth at people (with intent to seriously injure), threats of killing people with machetes, squabbles over property, over straying husbands, and much verbal abuse.   The women are as vicious as the men: in one scene three women attack a schoolgirl and chase her home, threatening even to come into her house and beat her up.  They have a reason, but it's not gentle stuff.  In another scene, a woman bullies the main character (a man considerably stunted in growth, with an obvious hip problem) and threatens him with her machete.   He quietly asks, How sharp is your machete?  But it's barely a joke.

Quietness is a constant here: the husband (the small man) and his wife (a woman banished from her own family and village seventeen years before) barely speak, although they're not especially at odds with each other.  They have a daughter - she's the reason for the banishment, and she's not the husband's child anyway - and she isn't someone who says a lot either.   Most of the speaking is taken up by those who seem to be in charge: the orators, or the village elders - or the coach of the football team (who is a delight, incidentally, and provides one of the few lighter moments in the movie). 

The film is about outsiders, and we as an audience, without familiarity regarding this culture, are made to feel like outsiders too.   In several scenes we're left asking why such and such a thing happened; some of it is explained later, some is never explained.  A second viewing is definitely in order, so as to work out more accurately some of the things we see and don't understand first time around.

Production values are great - the island is lush and alive, and almost as much of a character as any of the people (Leon Narby is the cinematographer - which tells you a great deal about the look of the movie).  The acting is uniformly good; no cringe factor here, even though this is Samoa's first feature film ever.   It was shot entirely in Samoa, and uses an authentic Samoan cast. 

It's likely Samoans will see the film in a different way to palangi: Samoan Deputy Prime Minister Misa Telefoni has described it as "a beautiful and poignant love story" which brings "the finest aspects of traditions of our Samoan culture into the international spotlight".   I find it hard to agree with that.  There's a love story here, but it's one with enormous tension running underneath it, and I'm not sure that what's portrayed are the 'finest aspects' of Samoan culture.  It has to be admitted that about three-quarters of the way through the movie there's a change in mood; the violent, angry side of things seems to slide away, and barely surfaces again.  Instead, forgiveness becomes a predominant key to the last quarter of the movie, and in this real poignancy arises. 

Variety wrote: [The] script offers an insider's view of a society that just about keeps a lid on simmering violence through complex, ritualized forms of group interaction and humour, a portrait that goes some way toward exploding the myth of Samoans as peace-loving, noble-savage proto-hippies.   I suspect this is more how most palangi will see the movie.

The film was written and directed by Tusi Tamasese; the lead part is played by a complete newcomer, Fa'Afiaula Sagote (in the photo), and this is also Tausili Pushparaj's first film.  (She plays his wife.)   
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