Across the Pacific: Vai and the beauty in a chorus of voices

In cinemas now, Vai tells the story of one woman’s life through eight ten-minute shorts, directed by nine Pacific women.

At the Auckland premiere of Vai at Sylvia Park, dozens of attendees line up at the candy bar to buy a drink for the film. After paying, they then continued into the theatre where they discovered that, like all premieres, snacks and drinks were provided free of charge.

It’s a small misunderstanding that represents a much larger reality: Pasifika don’t often get invited to premieres, and Pasifika don’t often make movies to premiere.

As if making up for lost time, Vai has nine Pacific women writer-directors. Produced by Kerry Warkia and Kiel McNaughton, and a sequel of sorts to the critically acclaimed Waru (2017), Vai consists of eight ten-minute vignettes, directed by nine women. Each vignette is largely one shot and set, in order of appearance, in Fiji, Tonga, Solomon Islands, (Sāmoan in) Aotearoa, Cook Islands, Sāmoa, Niue, and Aotearoa.

The directors, clockwise from top left: Amberley Jo Aumua, Dianna Fuemana, Becs Arahanga, Marina Alofagia, ‘Ofa-Ki-Levuka Gettenbiel-Likiliki, Miria George, Nicole Whippy, Matasila Freshwater, Sharon Whippy (Images: Supplied)

Vai follows the character Vai from age seven to age eighty. Though her body and location changes with each time jump, her story is consistent. It’s a plot device that works especially well given the shared experiences of women from all Pacific Islands. Niue Vai and Sāmoan Vai really aren’t that different.

For Warkia, the decision to keep each vignette as one shot, like Waru, was easy to make. “Obviously if Waru hadn’t worked we wouldn’t be here,” she said, speaking before the Auckland premiere. “We loved the idea of a single shot and what you can do with that. And how the audience really sits with the actor the entire time, going through everything with them and they can’t escape it.”

The directors all had a cultural connection to their island setting, but there was no system in place to divy up the timeline. “Kiel and I lay awake some nights going ‘oh my god what if they all fight over what part of Vai’s life they want to tell’. One of the directors came in thinking to herself ‘I’m quite happy to fit in where I’m needed to fit in’ so that was incredibly generous. Other people said ‘I actually don’t feel like I have the experience to write to this but I feel really comfortable here in this [other] space.’”

It’s a unique project, sharing a director credit with eight others. Dianna Fuemana (Niue vignette) knew going in that directing on this film wouldn’t include the same overarching control as an orthodox shoot. “We accepted on the first day that they [Warkia and McNaughton] were the ‘Kapeteni’ of our Vaka. We would ‘ama’ and take turns at steering but they would lead us.”

Leading nine Pasifika women directors meant adapting the schedule and budgets to cater to unique needs. Something Warkia believes is long overdue industry-wide. “There’s a real holistic view you have to take with it and I really enjoy that way of working. I really do want to know if you’re a single mother and you’re struggling with your daughter and you actually need her to travel with you and be on set with you. We can do that. We can make that happen. And that’s what we did.

“What do those women need to achieve their full potential because that’s what we need to put in place. Those things have to go into our budgets and we have to understand what that means because they deserve it.”

Fiona Collins with director Marina McCartney and her daughter, rehearsing in Samoa (Image: Supplied)

In film, as in most industries, those most deserving rarely receive the opportunity to excel. Watching Vai, it’s hard to believe that the majority of people seen on screen had never acted before. Eight girls and women play Vai in the film and only one, Fiona Collins in the Sāmoa vignette, had acted previously to this project. It leaves you wondering if you’ll be seeing any of them again.

As Warkia knows all too well, the first response to any call for more diversity in the entertainment industry is simply that the numbers aren’t there. And it pisses her off. “One of the things that drives me crazy is I sat in a drama hui and one of these bloody guys said ‘where are these people that you talk about? Where are the Māori directors?’ He said, “we’ve got diversity in catering, we’ve got diversity in the gaffer team…”

“I literally had just gotten off the plane that morning from Toronto where Waru had its international premiere to go to this meeting to listen to this fucking white guy talk about ‘where are they?’ It’s super insulting and it’s ridiculous. The door has been shut for so long for women and even longer for women of colour. You need to open that goddamned door and you need to go out and you need to find them. Because they’re making shit happen in their communities and families.”

From the families and communities to the world. Vai’s screenings at SXSW and the Berlin International Film Festival were all sold out. It received widespread positive reviews despite showing to audiences about as far removed from a Solomon Islands lagoon as you could get. For ‘Ofa-Ki-Levuka Guttenbeil-Likiliki (Tonga vignette) it’s no surprise but a welcome vindication.

“Our stories told our way is perfectly fine and it doesn’t need to be tweaked or refined to suit an ‘international audience’. We often try to conform or fit a particular way of storytelling with the fear that if we tell it like it is, only a Pacific or indigenous audience will be interested. The world is ready for our stories and this is just the beginning.”


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