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The Orator speaks tomorrow

Tusi Tamasese’s The Orator, fresh from Venice via Samoa, opens on Thursday. For someone who wrote and made a film called The Orator, Tamasese is a man of few words.

Since he completed the obligatory round of media interviews for the film, The Orator has screened in Samoa and been announced as NZ’s first-ever selection for the Foreign Language Oscar.

It’s also been selected for the Brisbane International Film Festival and is probably climbing programmers’ lists at other festivals to which it’s been submitted. Venice awards and Oscar consideration are pretty good selling-points, regardless of the film’s own unique qualities.

It also makes for interesting marketing campaigns. Here, it’s being pitched strongly to arthouse audiences and in communities with strong island representation. It’s having its premiere tonight in Manukua. There is, Transmission Films’ Michael Eldred said, a similar response to that Boy was generating pre-release – a sense of ownership being taken by those communities, and pride in seeing their culture onscreen and (for the first time) hearing their language spoken in the first Samoan language full-length feature.

At Script to Screen Writers Room a couple of months back, South Pacific Pictures’ John Barnett also spoke of islanders’ strong sense of community. His feeling was, perhaps, a little more commercial – identifying an audience not being served by films being made about them. That led to Sione’s Wedding.

The Orator went further both literally, having been shot in Samoa in the Samoan language, and figuratively, telling a very Samoan story rather than the experience of islanders overseas.

Both films also feature Nathaniel Lees, onscreen in Sione’s, as an Associate Producer on Tamasese’s film.

Interviewed in Venice about the film, Tamasese talked about the casting. “Finding a dwarf in Samoa is difficult,” he said. Eventually he found two, the one he originally had in mind when writing the script (who “didn’t turn up”) and Fa’afiaula Sagote, who eventually took on the part of Saili.

Accommodations had to be made, as Sagote has difficulty walking. Some script revisions were required and some shots took longer to get than others. Setting the bar lower delivered benefits too. Particular, both in using a dwarf lead character and portraying Samoan culture, the story is also universal which, as all students of screenwriting learn, is key to attracting an audience.

There are universal themes, of the role of the outsider, of having to right wrongs before moving on. There are also specifically local ideas, the way one’s ancestors are buried and the particular forms of language the orator, or speaking chief, uses. The latter are not translated, word for word, in the film’s subtitles.

Tamasese wrote the script in English although producer Catherine Fitzgerald thought it was a case of “Samoan in his head, English on the page.”

Tamasese acknowledged Kurosawa as one of his influences, and the pacing of The Orator more closely resembles Asian rather than mainstream European or American film. The number of close-ups – far fewer than one would expect from a US release – is a common feature of Asian arthouse films. The runtime of 110 minutes doesn’t quite stretch to the Asian arthouse 2+ hour norm, and – despite its gentle pace – The Orator feels as though it’s been tightly edited.

The shoot wasn’t tight compared to NZ shoots, lasting six weeks, although the absence of filmmaking infrastructure in Samoa slowed the pace along with the heat. Rushes took several days to turn around, having to be shipped out and reappearing several days later.

The first review, by Variety following the Venice screenings, said it was “a compelling drama with more to offer than just anthropological interest,” and calling the film “an auspicious feature debut.”

Other reviews in Italy focused on the exoticism of the south Pacific, harking back to the paintings of Paul Gaugin, tropical climate and Levi-Strauss’ “tristes tropiques”. Even those teetering on the brink of racism did recognise the story for what it was, a struggle “universal and timeless, between individuals … and feelings of honor, respect and dignity.”

Tamasese acknowledged the risk the NZFC took in funding the feature, not that they just wrote out a cheque willy-nilly. Tamasese and a small crew went to Samoa during the film’s development to shoot some material to convince the NZFC that they could shoot in Samoa, with a non-profeessional cast, in the Samoan language, and produce something worthwhile. Last year’s festival entry Va Tapuia/Sacred Spaces was the result.

The Orator releases on 17 screens tomorrow, 16 of them in NZ plus the one and only cinema in Samoa. After the school holidays (and the end of the battle for screen space with Smurfs and other kid-friendly creatures) it will start to screen in the smaller centres here.

Tomorrow night’s screening at the Rialto is followed by a Q&A with director Tusi Tamasese and producer Catherine Fitzgerald; Tuesday’s screening (11 October) at the Bridgeway is followed by a Q&A with cinematographer Leon Narbey. Book for both if they’re not already sold out.