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Director Tusi Tamasese goes to Sundance Film Fest

Director Tusi Tamasese will trade in South Pacific sand for Sundance snow when he makes his first trip to the U.S. to screen his film The Orator. This is just one of many firsts for Tamasese’s film which premiered at the Venice Film Festival last year.

The Orator is the first Samoan language feature film shot entirely in Samoa using mostly local non-professional actors. Although Tamasese now resides in Wellington, he was born and raised in Samoa and for his directorial debut he wanted to return to a world that he knew well—a world that the rest of us know not so well.   

Tamasese recalls that the idea to study filmmaking occurred to him because it was the course page he turned to in a university catalog. If he shrugs off how he came into filmmaking, he still seems destined to have made this film. It also seems the distance of leaving Samoa when he was 18 was the right amount to gain some perspective on the indigenous culture.

“I had a foreign view and a Samoan view… and I tried to imagine the script with the sensual images of the culture,” explains Tamasese, whose filmmaking is meticulous with sensory details—the overwrought green of a taro plantation, rain pouring down the faces of villagers, the slapping of mats unfolded as death offerings. “It’s a hard process to dissect a culture that is very rich,” he acknowledges. “But I think from the feedback I’ve received from foreigners is that they are able to understand the Samoans.”

The film follows the story of a Saili, a little person and taro farmer who tries to protect his land from poachers and his wife from the family who banished her many years before. But first Saili must reclaim his father’s chiefly title by persuading the elderly village chief of his great physical strength and oratory skills. Through the various rounds of negotiations among the villagers, we begin to see the spirituality and humanity of this culture in life and death.

Rendering this authenticity was, well, “It’s bloody hard,” Tamasase warns of shooting in a country without any filmmaking infrastructure, going into the thick, battling the weather, and invading people’s everyday lives. “But the people were very accommodating and generous,” says Tamasase who had to kindly ask many locals to turn down blaring radios while shooting. He eventually found his ideal location. “I wanted the old village formation which is before the missionaries arrived,” recalls the director. “There are only a handful of those villages left, but I managed to use one.” And so his film also becomes a documentation of a fading tradition.