Ancient legend meets contemporary life in the new anthology TV series made entirely by Pasifika people, writes Lofa Totua.
Ancient Indigenous Pacific deities, and their role in the lives of Pacific people, are the subject of Teine Sā: The Ancient Ones, a five-episode anthology brought to the screen by a village-sized collection of Moana talent, on both sides of the camera.
In the series, which debuted on Prime last week and is streaming now Neon and The Coconet TV, five sacred gods cross paths with five different women in the modern world, helping them with their struggles and leaving lessons in their wake. While the myths that form the basis of the series are ancient, the issues explored in each episode are contemporary and relevant to the Pacific diaspora, from school bullying to gender identity to the impacts of disrespecting one’s own heritage.
Close to home
In Sāmoan mythology, teine sā are beautiful spirit women who fiercely protect their local village or area. The series explores the nature of these beings and their role as protectors, and reclaims the powerful legends about their presence that are often kept alive by mothers and aunties across Pacific communities.
For Mario Faumui, the Sāmoan director of the first episode, ‘Teine Sa’, the series has been both a healing experience and way to honour his ancestors. He says he felt it was important that he uphold the essence of the ancient stories by treating them with respect. “These are not little goosebump stories that we have just devised, these are the real stories of our people.”
Teine Sā is a unique proposition for the Pacific screen industry: as a horror anthology, it marks a welcome change in tone after years of more light-hearted fare, dominated by documentary-style storytelling and comedy skits. Exploring another genre has its challenges, but Faumui says the project was a powerful one for all involved.
“We’ve all heard these stories so many times in different mediums. Whether it’s visual art, in plays or with photography, everyone has had their own version of the teine sā. This was an opportunity to explore another genre and these stories were the perfect fit.”
Matasila Freshwater is the director of a story with strong ties to her Soloman Island heritage. Her episode, ‘Hiama’, is the first project in New Zealand to be created – written, directed and acted – entirely by Melanesians.
The episode was inspired by a story from Freshwater’s own family, and her mother was part of the creative process from the start. Freshwater, the 2019 SPADA young director of the year, says whakapapa was a vital element of the series – and of her episode in particular, which relied on family knowledge and oratory passed down through the generations.
“I was really lucky to have had that gifted to me and have been supported by family in that – and to be able to also reshape [the story] too.
“Projects like this can be really tapu and sacred; we have to navigate it carefully and thoughtfully and, hopefully, do the best job. We won’t always get it right but it is still a step forward.”
It takes a village
The series features some of our biggest Pacific stars, including Frankie Adams (Shortland Street, The Expanse), who takes the lead role in four out of the five stories. Joe Naufahu (Game of Thrones) and Dominic Ona Ariki (One Lane Bridge) also appear, as well as a raft of newcomers including Samoan LGBTQ+ actor Petmal Petelo Lam and young actor Elsie Polosovai, the lead in Frehswater’s ‘Hiami’. Bringing new stories, new voices and new faces to the screen was a key part of the project, with veteran directors Toa Fraser and Sima Urale acting as mentors for those with less experience. Alongside Faumui and Freshwater, the directing roster includes the comedian and writer Mario Gaoa of the Naked Samoans, talented short film maker Miki Magasiva, and acclaimed actor and director Anapela Polata’ivao. The driving creative force behind the series was producer Lisa Taouma, the co-founder of Pacific content hub The Coconet, where each episode is streaming.
Holistic thinking and values ensured an on-set environment that felt generous to work in, says Freshwater, while Faumui says he felt empowered by the ability to freely speak his mother tongue whilst directing in a culturally safe space – a hopeful sign for aspiring directors and creatives that screen production is becoming a more welcoming environment for people from all cultural and social backgrounds.
Teine Sā is part of a new chapter in Aotearoa New Zealand television and film, which has long been an arena where Pacific storytelling and creatives are underrepresentated. Both Freshwater and Faumui say Pacific values were integral to their directing, particularly the Sāmoan value of tautua, or service, along with the duty they both felt to their communities in sharing these stories. They also hope the series will contribute to the ongoing conversation about delconisation and anti-blackness. For Freshwater, the spirit women at the centre of her episode are not subjects of fear, but of reverence. Since its earliest days, television and film has associated blackness and darkness with evil, and Freshwater says she hopes Teine Sā will help address that damaging stereotype.
“Horror has typically demonised people of colour, women, trans bodies and queer bodies. We are dealing with a film language that has rendered us invisible or murdered us. To be able to play in that space – in that grey area – and hopefully present something different and new to what that Eurocentric view of horror has typically done, is really cool.”
For these two Pacific directors, the series represents a space for real cultural reclamation, and an opportunity to embrace the parts of Pacific history and mythology that are far more complicated than just “scary stories”. Quoting his episode’s writer, Lindah Lepou, Mario Faumui says the series is about “language and reference” – about Pacific people getting to see their own stories on screen.
“The dream and ultimate wish would be that our people don’t get to study Shawshank Redemption and Romeo and Juliet. They can choose to study us.”
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