A CONVERSATION WITH FILMMAKER SIMA URALE

Filmmaker Sima Urale was the Fulbright–Creative New Zealand Writer-in-Residence at the Center for Pacific Islands Studies in 2004. On 28 September she gave a public talk, showed clips of her work, and answered questions from the audience. The following are excerpts from her presentation.
I was born on the island of Savai‘i in Sāmoa in a village called Fagamalo at a time when there was no electricity. It was very traditional, and it still is—no electricity, no fridges.  We were born and raised in a traditional fale that my dad built. When I was six, we immigrated to New Zealand because Mum and Dad wanted a better education for us overseas.  And also, Mum had aspiring ideas for her village kids. I think it was also to gain some sense of independence and a bit of freedom from the communal life, which was really hard back in the village. It was very hard for my parents to have to adhere to traditions. They did everything traditional that was expected of them from family, what village law required from them. I think it was a time when my parents, and probably many other Samoans, really craved for some sense of fun and independence from the extended family.
In Aotearoa, of course, the first images that we saw were black-and-white movies that were playing on this box called the TV.  And my first impression of movies was, “Why were these white people, who I don’t really know, killing people that kind of looked like us and were riding horses?”  They were Native American Indians! It was quite traumatizing for me because I couldn’t comprehend why these people that kind of looked like us were always losing in the films.  And as I grew up, I also wondered why the only times we came across in any form of media was usually on the 6 o’clock news, and not in any other art program or documentary. It was quite negative, the media, I thought, and very unfair.  So part of the reason for my going into filmmaking was wanting to represent and bring across a different face of our people, and explore stories on the screen and show a different facet of our culture and people.  The fascinating thing about the media—and film is a part of the media—is it has, for me, been a really, really destructive force.  It’s been a form of misinformation, a way to abuse, and to use propaganda, and has misinformed a lot of people about other peoples’ cultures.  And so I chose to go into filmmaking because we can use that to benefit our people, and actually now it is the most powerful tool we can use to tell our story.
But before filmmaking, I went to the New Zealand Drama School Toi Whakaari o Aotearoa. It was a very white institution, but the year I was accepted, there were four other Māori students, which was a huge intake for that kind of institution, which was drama, usually Shakespeare, and all white plays. It was a real eye-opener for me because we were learning an acting craft and acting in white plays.  But what was really neat was to see many of us form our own identities within the institution. Many of us realized that maybe we were trying to be something we weren’t and started to explore our own stories and our own identity.
At the end of the two years at the New Zealand Drama School, the five of us were sitting around thinking, “My gosh, what are we going to do, what are we going to act in?  There’s no Brown stuff out there.”  But luckily there were people out there who were really inspiring, like Albert Wendt, and Rangimoana Taylor and his sister Riwia Brown—writers out there writing plays and parts that would really suit us, and that was really encouraging.  So when some of us came out of the New Zealand Drama School, many of us, and I certainly, went onto playing Māori roles, which is really interesting because the Māori fully embraced me and fully accepted me as someone who could actually play in their plays.  I thought I was really privileged to have people think that they could cast me in another culture. On top of that, the haole, or Palagi, also cast me in Shakespeare and local Kiwi plays. For me, it was a real eye- opener to realize that other people could actually accept me playing white roles or Māori roles.
It was a lot of fun for two years, but by the end of those two years, being in Shakespeare plays, it dawned on me that this was the same damn audience that came two years ago (laughs).  This audience was already converted, they already loved theater, they already knew the issues we were dealing with, but really, the person I wanted to do a play in front of was the little kid down the road at the park, or the old woman that’s my next-door neighbor.  I wondered why our people weren’t coming to the theater, or just your average person wasn’t coming to the theater.  I figured out that, of course, they’d be watching TV.  They’d either be watching TV or they’d be going to the [movie] theater, and that’s when I decided to go to a film school in Australia and study filmmaking, so that I could achieve my goal of telling stories that I wanted to tell.
I returned to New Zealand and wrote and directed my first short film, O Tamaiti, which is all in Samoan.  For a long time I didn’t think that film was any good.  It took me a year to convince myself that the film was any good.  I’m very self-critical of my work.  Even after it won international awards—I was in Venice when it won—I was still just thinking, “Oh, maybe they’re just being nice to me.”  But then I realized that a lot of [people from] those countries hadn’t actually seen a Samoan before. So they weren’t judging the film on anything cultural. . . .  They were actually seeing the issues, and that means a lot to me. I can tell stories of my own culture, but in many ways it can travel and can mean just as much to another culture. . . .
After I made O Tamaiti, everyone thought, “My gosh, here is a really serious filmmaker.”  I had the film community expecting a particular type of film out of me. They also expected, I guess, another Samoan film. Along comes a producer with a film called Velvet Dreams. It was not originally called Velvet Dreams, but it was a documentary that he wanted to make on velvet paintings.  When I read the treatment, it was really boring and read like an encyclopedia.  But right at the bottom was this one fascinating sentence—that this 88-year-old velvet painter, a white male, was painting Island women like myself.  So I decided to do [the film] on the condition that I did it my way. It gave me the opportunity to analyze and critique these white males who had been painting us all these decades.  I used every clich(c) in the book.  It’s kitschy, it’s tacky, it is opposite to the film O Tamaiti. I didn’t want people to put me in a box. Velvet Dreams totally surprised everyone when it came out, that a serious filmmaker was using humor to make this other piece of work.
After Velvet Dreams, I guess people just expected me to do Pacific Island stories.  Well I didn’t want them to put me in a box there, either.  To prove to them that I can direct stories other than Pacific Island [stories], I wrote a script about the elderly.  I had a white couple in it.  And that film was called Still Life.  That was to show people I can empathize, that I know what the issues are—whether you’re white, green, from Mars or whatever, or Samoan—I can make these films and do them just as well as anyone else.  My career, a lot of it, is actually centered on trying to break out from the mold and trying to prove myself against what people expect of me, one, as a Pacific Islander, and, two, as a woman.
 Why did you shoot O Tamaiti in black-and-white?
I was just telling a class today, the movie Once Were Warriors had just come out.  It was a powerful, moving movie about domestic violence, not Māori people, which is a really universal issue. . . . I, myself, got asked all the time when I was in Australia or Hawai‘i, if we were like that all the time. Māori were lumped like that—Polynesians, Pacific Islanders—the next thing you know, everyone thought that we all looked like that, that we were all alcoholics partying away and bashing up our kids.  I think it’s a powerful, moving film; the mistake is that the audience took that film to be it, because it was so powerful.
When that film came out, I knew that whatever I made had to try and move away from that particular film.  With O Taimaiti, instead of doing the realism in OnceWere Warriors, I did the opposite.  I intentionally made O Taimaiti artsy-fartsy (laughs).  Once Were Warriors is all in color.  I made O Taimaiti black-and-white. Once Were Warriors is quite graphic with its violence.  You see people punching each other, blood going everywhere, like most action films, but for O Taimaiti I decided to use suggestive shooting, not showing the violence.  I shot a lot of objects being broken, glass being smashed, but intercut in between was the little boy’s face, and that shows the audience that violence is happening all around the boy, without [their] having to see it.  I did it opposite to Once Were Warriors so that audiences could see that there are different ways of tackling issues.  I didn’t want to see people get too focused on domestic violence, but just to look at the relationships of siblings to one another, and that it is more important to look at how children look after one another, and the huge responsibility that adults place on children. . . . Because there are not many of us out there representing us, or there are not many films out there, it’s the kind of things that I think we as a minority have to think about all the time.  And it’s not something we can ignore. I’m always conscious of what’s been done before and where we want to go in the future.
What kind of obstacles did you have to overcome as a woman filmmaker?
It’s funny, but I did a radio interview live with another woman who was interviewing me about O Taimaiti. She posed a feminist question to me.  She presumed that I would have strong feminist ideas, and I totally went quiet. I didn’t know how to reply to her. She presumed that my family was strongly patriarchal, and after a pause, live on the air, I said “Sorry, I can’t understand your question because for one thing, my father is my mother.”  You pose a question like that and presume that someone has grown up unequal when, in fact, it’s quite opposite in my family.  My father was the maternal one who gave us hugs and kisses and the rest of it.  And my mother was the breadwinner.  So we had done role reversal years before anyone else caught on. And that was in the village! So some things to do with women’s issues I can understand, but sometimes not fully support, because my family is quite unconventional anyway.
But overcoming obstacles as a woman?  Definitely in the film industry back then there were a lot of men, but in the last five years, a lot of women filmmakers are coming up.  They’re producing, they’re directing—it’s been amazing. Jane Campion has helped, and other filmmakers. . . . It is really quite strong in New Zealand, and I think internationally too, because women come out with different types of stories. I noticed even in film school, that boys will be boys! To be quite honest, women were actually more confrontational and dealt with deep-seated issues much more. Women bring a different sensitivity to filmmaking that men don’t necessarily have, although I must say there are some amazing male filmmakers out there. As far as myself personally, I don’t think I’ve ever had an obstacle, really, doing what I do.  Yes, I do often deal with white males who are much older than me, but I don’t have a problem with that.  In fact, it’s a bonus.
What are you working on now?
This particular project I’m working on is called Moana, for the moment, a working title.  The story is about a Pacific Island family who have never been back home, don’t speak their language anymore, and are in the lower socioeconomic level.  It’s about one of the little girls wanting to be a writer. She becomes a storyteller and forms stories of her family and of gods that she’s heard of.  She wants to keep the stories alive, but there’s no way she can do it because these gods are dying.  The only way she can [keep them alive] is through writing.  Writing is a way of trying to save your culture, in other words—trying to save your traditions and culture.  The way to do it today is to try and write, and that’s what she does at the end of the film.  The gods come through in her imagination.  The gods intertwine and come into contemporary today and affect her everyday life. . . .  It’s a cross between Lord of the Rings and the reality—not the issue, the reality—of Once Were Warriors.  I’m trying to blend those two together, that the old gods come back into the real world, into this reality.
What do people in Sāmoa think of your films?
PIC [Pacific Islanders in Communications] and I took some films to Pago.  We showed the films around different villages.  The reaction was good.  Basically I’m a westernized Pacific Islander, and I know that. I’m no longer the village kid who grew up in the village.  Sometimes it’s a mistake to think that [people in the village] would accept what I accept.  I’m well aware that they won’t necessarily accept what I make because I’m a totally different person from them—different views, politically very different.  They enjoyed the films, but one comment was, “Why do you have to make negative films about us?”  That was a really good thing to say because no culture wants to look bad.  But if we keep making nice films all the time . . . I don’t know. I’m well aware of how my people want to be perceived, as little angels that never hurt their kids. But at the same time, you need to break out of what society wants, and in the end you’ve got to be true to yourself and do the story that you want to tell.
How do you work with editors, cinematographers, and others on your films?
I’m a complete control freak.  Those cinematographers, I tell them exactly what to point at and how to frame it, and what’s in the shot.  Some directors don’t work like that. I warn them before I work with them, “Keep in mind, I’m a complete control freak.  I’m going to tell you what to point at.”  I think for me it’s because . . . maybe I’m too egotistical, I don’t know (laughs).  I love literalizing the entire production, knowing what the lights look like, what it’s going to look like, shaping wardrobe, everything.  The wonderful thing about cinematographers and editors, people that you work with, is that I always make sure I get ones who can tell me to my face, because if they’re scared of me and can’t say what they want, what a bummer.  I lose out because they’re not prepared to put in their thoughts and bounce off me. They are really good for feedback.  I’ve had editors tell me I’m wrong, and it’s true.  It’s all part of sharing and talking about ideas. But the bottom line is I know that I’m going to get my cut, and that’s it.
Would you ever consider making a film in Sāmoa?
To be quite honest with you, doing a film back home for me, personally, is probably the touchiest, hardest thing for me to do—hardest for me because I left Sāmoa when I was little.  So to go back and try and recapture something that isn’t me anymore, I’m afraid that it won’t be very truthful because now I am a Pacific Islander who loves movies, loves to go nightclubbing, and loves to do western things.  Other Samoans and my aunts love to go back home and love to write about that, love to reminisce about it, love to explore what island life is like and living there, but personally I can’t quite do that.  I don’t think I ever will.  I think I will stay within a western context and western ways of storytelling because I find that’s the way I can express myself best and not in a traditional village sense. I’ve become detached—not detached, but I’ve had certain bonds cut off from what I am at home.
Have Māori opened the door for Pacific Islanders in film?
Māori theatre and film have definitely paved the way and made things easier for the rest of us to follow.  They’ve opened more doors than we Pacific Islanders like to admit. . . . There was no Pacific Islander who had gone to Melbourne and applied for film school.  I was the only Brown person in the whole school.  Sometimes you just have to stop thinking about color and just go do it because it’s all about your talent. People need to get a bit more confidence and self- esteem to go out there and just do what they want to.  Sometimes you need to ignore and put aside the cultural issues and the racial issues, and just get on with it to obtain some of those skills and knowledge.  You can get all hopped up and . . . next thing you know, we’re all fighting each other and not going anywhere.  But having a lot of self-confidence and self-esteem is important.  Where do you get that?  You get that by finding some pride in your culture and your people and having role models.  It’s a bit of a vicious cycle in that you need role models in the first place.  I think it’s a wonderful, exciting time for all of us.  The industry in New Zealand at the moment is just amazing. . . . There are so many stories to explore and so many gaps to fill.  There are not just two films out there, there will be more, and the more that are out there, the more people will understand about us.  Filmmaking is a way of reaching across to the other side of the world.