Simon Foster speaks to the writer/director behind one of the year’s most serene films.
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17 Nov 2011 - 3:44 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:09 PM

The first time Tusi Tamasese witnessed the skills of an orator, he was transfixed but also nonplussed. He understood the role that the great chief-of-words played in his tribal culture but the language was unfamiliar to him.

“I was very young. It was a funeral,” he recalls, with a gentle, measured intonation that ideally suits the creative force behind The Orator. “I didn't really understand what was going on because orators speak in a different language, so formal and full of metaphors and poetry. But the people around me, all of the older generation, were laughing.”

When told that the preview screening SBS attended was packed with his countrymen – guests of Sydney's Samoan Council – who'd all erupted in similarly spontaneous guffaws, Tamasese is not at all surprised. “Samoans who live here, who have travelled from Samoa, hear and see certain things in the film that remind them of their life in Samoa. They have got a kind of deeper insight into the film.”

That Tamasese's directorial debut should inspire such a response heartens the young filmmaker, who graduated to feature films after taking part in the 2010 Berlin Film Festival talent campus and wowing global festival goers with his 2009 short, Va Tapuia (Sacred Spaces). Yet he derives even greater pleasure from how his love story between Vaagia, a banished woman, and Saili, a small person outcast, has resonated with non-Islander audiences. (The film has been the year's sleeper hit at the New Zealand box office, steadily earning close to US$600,000 at press time, and is New Zealand's official entry to the foreign language Oscars in 2012.)

“It is set in an unseen world; no one, or at least the majority, really knows where Samoa is,” admits Tamasese. “But the themes that the characters go through, they are universal themes. It is about how love is blind and about (coping with) death. That is how outside audiences identify with the characters.”

Also common to non-Samoan audiences will be the role that language plays in the story, and the power the orator wields through the simple application of words and emotive reasoning. Tamasese was determined to find a potent thematic device to convey that very point, so he cast a small person, first-time actor Fa'Afiaula Sagote, in the lead role of Saili. “When I created the character and made him a small person, I [did so] after looking at the Samoan culture, which is very oral. When chiefs confront each other, they fight through words. Having someone who is big and intimidating against someone who is small, and have them battle with weapons that are words, you can overcome [physical] situations and win.”

Casting the then 31-year-old Sagote proved a masterstroke: the actor – a carpenter by trade, who was discovered in the deep Samoan hinterland – will be attending the Asia Pacific Screen Awards in late November to vie for the Best Actor award. Drawing such a lauded performance from a non-actor (one of many in the cast of Indigenous islanders) also represented a steep learning curve for Tamasese; casting the experienced stage actress Tausili Pushparaj as Vaaiga allowed for her guidance and wisdom on-set, but the first-time director still had to rein in the novice actors during the tight rehearsal period.

“These people had seen a lot of Hollywood movies, so their idea of acting was very open and big, which is exactly what I was against,” he recalls. “I wanted them to be Samoan. They were pretending to be someone other than themselves. In talking to them, I told them 'This is a film about being Samoan and you have to go back to your life experience, in the way you talk and sit. That is what I am after.'” Tamasese's intent and his connection to the region's way-of-life soon convinced his cast. “They began to relate to the characters,” he says, “and discovered ways to bring these characters to life.”

The clearly-defined dramatic arc in Tamasese's script is resonant because it's richly infused with its setting. From his extended opening sequence – a vivid exploration of the landscape and the role the climate plays in shaping the inhabitant's connection to the land – the director clearly exhibits an understanding of the oneness that binds Samoans.

“The shoot was very difficult,” Tamasese states, bluntly. “But the sounds, the weather, was always a character in the film; I always wanted to feature the land. To capture Samoa, you have to capture the environment. You need to see the people against the trees and the mountains. Because, you know, that's where we come from.”