Tusi Tamasese made quite a splash with his groundbreaking debut film The Orator — O Le Tulafale: the first feature film written and directed by a Samoan, entirely in the Samoan language, and filmed in Samoa with an all-Samoan cast. It won a few film festival awards too, and was New Zealand’s first-ever entry into the best foreign-language film category at the 2011 Academy Awards.
Tusi’s second film One Thousand Ropes is set in Wellington this time, but is still very much a Samoan film. Here, the Wellington-based filmmaker and father of three chats to Dale about his work.
Mālō, Tusi. It's a privilege to meet the man who's been the driving force behind two such remarkable films. We can all see that making significant movies plays a part in Māori and Pasifika development. But how does it do that?
Identity. When I look at countries that make a lot of films — I’m thinking China, India — they have a certain style and cultural pride. Film can help us gain confidence simply through representation. Just to be part of the cinematic tradition gives a sense of identity.
And I think films like One Thousand Ropes can contribute to Māori and Pacific filmmakers having the confidence to tell stories in their own ways.
Your film The Orator — O Le Tulafale received critical acclaim both here and at international festivals. But I imagine you would have been interested in audience reaction as well. How did audiences respond?
Internationally the reception was pretty positive — the film premiered in Venice and also was shown in Toronto, Sundance, Palm Springs, Berlin and Japanese festivals. One of the notable reactions was in Nara in Japan where the audience was mainly older Japanese men and women and I could hear people sniffling as the credits rolled down.
Closer to home and with Samoan audiences, there were some who really liked it, but also some who told me that some of what was represented shouldn’t have been shown and that it made Samoans look bad.
You’re described as an important emerging voice in Pasifika film, but you describe yourself as a house husband raising a young Samoan whānau in Wellington. Two quite different viewpoints.
I like to think my filmmaking comes after my family. But when the project is about to go into production I do have to tell my family I’m going to be away.
But yeah, most of the time I’m a house husband.
My wife Mel is the one with the “regular” job — she’s an economist with MBIE. We have three children. Manuia-Joan, my eldest daughter, is 16. My son Titimaea is 12, and Filifilia, my youngest daughter, is six.
I’m assuming that Tusi is a shortened version of a longer Samoan name.
My full name is Afitusi Timothy Tamasese. Tusi is sort of a nickname, but it’s my father’s name. Afitusi means box of matches.
The story goes that my grandfather, who was a smoker, was always asking for a box of matches. Somehow, when my dad was born, it became his nickname. But I need to check with the family whether that’s true or not.
Can you share with us some kōrero about your parents and those who nurtured you in the islands?
My parents are Joan Petersen Tamasese and Tusi Tamasese. I was born in Samoa and grew up in Vaimoso — that’s our village. Back in the days when Samoa was fighting for independence from European administration, Vaimoso was the central headquarters for the Mau independence movement. I’ve got two sisters, and there’s five of us boys.
My dad was a mechanic — he had a mechanic shop and I worked for him for a short time after I finished school.
I was really fortunate that my family gave me the opportunity to come to New Zealand and try to find a life here. And very fortunate that I got the opportunities that were made available by sacrifices by many of my family members — uncles, aunties, parents, brothers, sisters. I’m the lucky one.
I’ve heard it said that you were playing up as a teenager, and your folks sent you to New Zealand as an 18-year-old to get you on the straight and narrow. Is that right?
I wasn’t a bad boy. I was just getting too lazy.
I ended up in Waikato University where I studied film and television. One of my older brothers was there on a scholarship and he encouraged me to study something I liked. I’d never been a star student at school so had never even thought of university. Anyway, I discovered Film Theory at Waikato and from there just never wanted to do anything other than make films.
When I graduated I went down to Wellington to the film school there, trying to get into the industry. It’s a hard industry to get into, but I was determined.
How did you go from having just done a diploma in film to making such a successful, groundbreaking debut film?
Hard work, stubbornness and a desire to make something that felt and was different. It was a long road. I was lucky to have family and people who supported and believed in me along the way.
When I completed my degree at Waikato, I enrolled in the Film School in Wellington. After the Film School, I found I couldn’t get a job in the industry. I did odd jobs sticking up posters around the city and sorting the mail while writing at odd hours.
I kept writing and submitting scripts to Creative New Zealand. Then I decided I needed to build more connections and enrolled to do an MA at Victoria Uni, where I wrote The Orator.
I did a few projects and finally met up with Catherine Fitzgerald, who’s a producer, and everything sort of took off from there.
Of course, Catherine produced both The Orator and One Thousand Ropes. How did you meet her and how important has it been having someone like her in your corner?
I’d been submitting scripts to Creative New Zealand for a while and they told me that I had some good scripts but that I needed to connect with a mentor and/or producer and others in the industry. They said that I should talk to Makerita Urale as a very experienced person in the industry. Makerita introduced me to Catherine.
Catherine has tremendous experience in film. She’s creative herself and willing to try new things, and I’ve been extremely lucky to have her as a producer.
It must’ve cost a considerable amount of money to film The Orator in Samoa. I understand the New Zealand Film Commission provided 90 percent of the funding and the Samoan government put in the rest. As a young, relatively unknown filmmaker, getting that level of funding would’ve taken some doing. Why do you think you were successful?
It was the people around me. I had an amazing crew who believed in the script and me. Catherine, of course, and Leon Narbey, who shot both films, and others. If those people weren’t on board, it wouldn’t have gotten anywhere.
But also, it’s the story. I think if it’s an interesting story, people will support it. And when that support comes in, you just have the confidence to try to go and do it.
It’s certainly a fascinating story, and obviously it resonated with international audiences too. I read somewhere that you wanted to strip away that image of an orator, a Samoan chief, as tall, fearless and well-spoken — and that’s why your hero in The Orator is a small person, a dwarf, who’s on the outer with his community and has to find his courage and his voice to save his family.
Still, it was quite a coup having a film that's entirely in the Samoan language, filmed in Samoa, and written and directed by a Samoan writer and director, be almost entirely funded by the New Zealand Film Commission — and for it to be classified as a New Zealand film while also being a very Samoan film.
The New Zealand Film Commission funding has criteria you have to meet to say that it’s a New Zealand film. For example, more than 50 percent of the key crew have to be New Zealanders and permanent residents.
We also knew that the film commission had supported Flying Fox in a Freedom Tree — which was based on a short story by Albert Wendt, and which had also been shot in Samoa back in 1990. And we’d had a commitment from the Samoan government for support. We made the case to the film commission and were fortunate that they believed in the story and us.
I'm Samoan and a New Zealander. And I think the fact that this is both a Samoan film and a New Zealand film shows that there are still very strong ties between Samoa and New Zealand, and that New Zealand sees itself very much part of the larger Pacific. Pacific stories are often New Zealand stories as well.
What’s the state of play with film and television in Samoa as far as local productions are concerned? Were you tempted to get into that scene when you were growing up in Samoa?
When I was growing up there was no local TV or film. The only filmmaking you saw was when Americans, Danish or Germans came in and shot their films on Savai‘i or the outskirts of Upolu. TV was mainly from American Samoa.
But there were three cinemas. There was a Chinese theatre where they only showed Chinese films, and two mainstream theatres that young people went to. They showed a lot of Hollywood films, and that’s where I fell in love with movies.
But there was no idea or dream of getting involved in the industry because I had no knowledge of what the industry was about. It was only when I came to New Zealand that I had the chance to explore.
Your films show your love of your reo Hāmoa. Living in New Zealand, you’ll have seen that, as a people, we Māori are still trying to protect ours. It’s in a very vulnerable state. But the Samoan language in New Zealand is very strong in many families, and I think yours is an example where all the kids understand Samoan, even if they don’t respond in Samoan. You’re seen as a real advocate for it. Why do you make your films in the Samoan language? And how important is it to Samoan identity?
I think if I’d shot The Orator in English there would have been no authenticity. There would be this barrier that wouldn’t allow you to go deeper into the story. For this sort of film, language is crucial.
Even on set, I thought it was important to communicate in Samoan to my actors. Because you’re trying to create a world, and speaking to them in Samoan made them feel confident and proud that they’re representing the Pacific and their language and their mother Samoa.
At home, I encourage my kids to speak Samoan, but they’ve lost their confidence in speaking. One of the reasons I send my kids back home is so they can regain their confidence and start to speak again.
Waikato is right in the heartland of te ao Māori. I imagine that you teamed up with a lot of Māori people there.
I’ve got some very talented Māori friends, such as Tim Worrall and Tearepa Kahi. Tearepa did Poi E, which played in Berlin along with The Orator.
We’re all trying to create authentic voices and have representation in world cinema, and we have that conversation among us, to share our problems and encourage each other. It’s very important to be able to work with confidence and not be afraid.
Māori and Pasifika filmmaking seems to be on the rise. What do you make of this growth of First Nations people sharing their stories?
It’s good. It’s really good. But I think the next step is to break down that barrier of naming us indigenous filmmakers. Storytelling is universal, and what we are doing is no different from other filmmakers around the world.
I’m keen to make people understand that we should not be pigeon-holed as just “indigenous" filmmakers. We’re all telling human stories with universal themes like love and redemption.
Your reputation is growing. How do you handle that? One day you’re an unknown guy, the next you’re the great brown hope of Samoan filmmaking. What do you make of it all?
Hopefully I’ll keep my “down-to-earth” thing and not have too much of a problem. But you know, this is just the process. After this interview I’m gonna be back at the house — cleaning up and looking after the kids and working on the new project.
Do you think of concepts while you’re doing the housework?
Yeah. Usually while mopping the floor.
I’m intrigued by your new film, One Thousand Ropes, which is set in Wellington. I hear you wanted to make something that had an anti-hero, a ghost, and traditional Samoan healing midwifery. So you’ve got an ex-boxer with a violent past (Uelese Petaia) who’s now a traditional Samoan midwife, trying to redeem himself with his daughter (Frankie Adams), who’s come home pregnant and beat up. So here again you’ve got some unusual strands coming together — and like The Orator, it’s fully in the Samoan language. Can you tell us the meaning behind the name?
One Thousand Ropes is a translation of Maea e afe, which is the name of the main character. It actually has two meanings: one thousand ropes or folded ropes.
It’s a family name and I tried to trace the origin, but so far I haven’t succeeded. I fancied the sound of “one thousand ropes”. It has more symbolism because the story is about people who are disconnected from society or who have been so tied down by their past that they can’t move forward and become immersed in mainstream society.
There’s also the idea of bonds — the bond between a mother and a child through the umbilical cord. The title relates to all these themes in the movie.
And some of those themes are rather raw. You’ve been willing to raise some darker aspects of not just Samoan society but of all societies — themes like domestic violence. Can you tell us about that?
I didn’t set out to make a film about domestic violence. I’m a character-driven filmmaker. I like to explore character, humanity. I want to see how people react. Exploring domestic violence arose as a by-product of this character Maea.
Let’s face it — domestic violence isn’t a Samoan, Tongan, Māori or Pacific Island problem. It’s a human problem. It has no colour. That’s something that interests me, and I wanted to showcase it in this character. I hope the film succeeds in bringing out the conversation about violence and helping people who suffer from it.