There's more to Polynesia than Lilo and Moana.
by Elizabeth Reese - Collider - May 20, 2022:
The root of Polynesian culture is storytelling. Before language was recorded in written form, histories and cultural traditions were oral records, passed on through word of mouth or cultural dance and performance, like hula. So it's no surprise that Polynesian filmmakers have the same eye for storytelling through the medium of filmmaking.
While the average film-goers first exposure to Polynesian culture may be through films like Lilo & Stitch and Moana, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander filmmakers have been telling their own stories for centuries. With Asian American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander Month in full swing, Polynesian filmmakers are here to remind us that the original storytellers haven't gone anywhere.
Taika Waititi's second feature film, Boy, is a coming-of-age story about an eleven-year-old growing up in Tairawhiti region of North Island of Aotearoa New Zealand. Obsessed with Michael Jackson, Boy follows the life of the title character as he maneuvers through life and comes to terms with the reality his father Alamein brings when he steps back into his life.
More than just a film about a boy in a small town, Boy is unique in its showcase of Polynesian, specifically Māori, culture. Written and directed by Waititi, who is of Māori descent (Te Whānau-ā-Apanui iwi) and is no stranger to using his own history as inspiration for his films, Boy was partially shot in his hometown. The character of Alamein, who is also played by Waititi, was loosely based on his own father. The driving message of whānau (family), what defines it, and how we value it within ourselves, is constantly being examined throughout the film. And of course, the famous Thriller Haka performed during the end credits is a celebration of a blend of Māori and pop culture. You can stream Boy for free on Vudu.
The idea of a third or non-binary gender is something that is sacred and revered in many Polynesian cultures. In Hawai'i, māhū is the third gender, meaning “the in-between.” Kumu Hina, by producers/directors Dean Hamer & Joe Wilson, is a documentary centered around Hinaleimoana Wong-Kalu, known as Kumu Hina (Kumu being the 'Ōlelo Hawai'i word for teacher), a Kanaka Maoli māhū who is devoted to the preservation and teaching of Hawaiian culture through hula.
Kumu Hina is a celebration, not only of Kumu Hina's life but of the impact she has on others. The documentary follows another student in her hālau who finds themselves in the middle of the gender spectrum. Kumu Hina mentors her student, Ho'onani, and serves as a guide for them as they begin this journey. As we continue to have conversations about non-binary representation in media today, it is helpful to remember that māhū like Kumu Hina have always been here. Kumu Hina is available to stream for free on Tubi.
Temuera Morrison is known to most of the world today as Boba Fett, but before he donned the bounty hunter's armor, he was known as Jake Heke. Once Were Warriors follows the story of the Heke family, a Māori family living in South Auckland, and their struggles. Directed by Lee Tamahori, Once Were Warriors is critically acclaimed for its brilliant performances but is not an easy watch. The themes of domestic abuse, alcoholism, and sexual assault may be incredibly triggering for some viewers.
Once Were Warriors was an innovative film, being one of the first films to showcase not only Māori talent, but Māori stories at the forefront. The themes of racism, colonialism, and pride of culture run strong throughout the film and Rena Owen's performance as Beth Heke is a standout. You are able to rent Once Were Warriors (and the sequel What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?) on Amazon, Google Play, YouTube, or AppleTV.
One of the more unique films in recent history, Vai is a portmanteau film; with nine different female Pacific Islander directors piecing together the story. Filmed in seven different Pacific countries (Fiji, Tonga, Solomon Islands, Kuki Airani, Samoa, Niue, and Aotearoa New Zealand), Vai tells the story of the title character as she grows and changes throughout her life.
The central theme of Vai is the very meaning of the word, water. Water itself is incredibly important to Polynesian and Pacific Nations, as they were the first wayfinders and travelers of the oceans. For many Polynesian cultures, water is seen as a life force and the very source of life itself. A film centered around not only this sacred element but also womanhood makes for a moving piece of film. Vai is able to stream for free on Tubi and Vudu.
Also known as The Orator, O Le Tulafale is the first Samoan feature film entirely in Samoa with a Samoan cast and Samoan-driven story. With a population of just under 200,000 people, the country and culture of Samoa is easily overlooked. The film follows Saili, a dwarf farmer, who is a societal outcast determined to reclaim his family's status.
O Le Tulafale was a breakthrough in Samoan cinema, being selected as Aotearoa New Zealand's entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the 84th Academy Awards, the first time the country submitted a film in the category. Although the film did not make the shortlist, it still opened the door for more Samoan filmmakers and stories to follow. You can stream O Le Tulafale for free on Amazon Prime and Tubi.
In 1981, the South African Springbok rugby team arrived in Aotearoa New Zealand for a match against the famous national team, the All Blacks. The ensuing mass demonstrations that greeted them would become the subject of the documentary Patu! Named after te reo Māori word meaning "to strike," Patu! was directed and produced by Merata Mita, the first Indigenous woman to solely direct and write a full feature in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Mita's vision tackles racism in Aotearoa New Zealand head-on as she explored how the Māori protesters were targeted over Pakeha, or non-Māori New Zealanders. Patu! is an exhilarating example of female Indigenous filmmaking and has been added to the UNESCO memory of the world register. Patu! is available to stream through NZonScreen.
Currently making the rounds on the film festival circuit, Ala Moana Boys tells the heartbreaking true story about Joseph Kahahawai, a Native Hawaiian man who was falsely accused of a crime he did not commit. In 1932, Thalia Massie claimed Kahahawai attacked and sexually assaulted her one night near Waikiki on O'ahu. Although he was freed on account of a hung jury, Massie's husband, aided by his mother, took matters into their own hands and kidnapped Joseph before murdering him. Joseph's funeral was the most attended on the islands for any Native Hawaiian that was not royalty.
Although the film is short, just over twenty minutes long, Ala Moana Boys, packs an emotional punch. Audiences are left to ponder inequities in a judicial system that has not changed much in the ninety years since Joseph's death. Although it is not yet available to stream, keep an eye on the film's social media for more information.