The healing power of art

Nina Nawalowalo returns home

By Samantha Magick

When director Nina Nawalowalo shared her film, A Boy Called Piano at the Samabula Juvenile Centre late last year, she was struck by the scenes that resonated with its young audience.

The movie centres on the journey of Fa’amoana John Luafutu and his son Matthias. Fa’amoana moved to New Zealand from Samoa as a child and became a ward of the state at the age of eleven, where he experienced abuse, isolation and trauma. Discovering the work of Samoan author Albert Wendt and his own abilities in music, writing and performance, provided a path towards healing for Fa’amoana, now a well-known artist in his own right.

Nawalowalo has collaborated with the Luafutu family over many years, co-creating two stage plays, a radio drama and the film in partnership with Tom McCrory, her co-founder at The Conch theatre company.

She said making the film was an entirely different experience from theatre, and a delicate process, as she did not want to revisit or trigger trauma.

Nawalowalo said it was also important to work with a small ‘quiet’ team, that trusted her judgement as director, particularly when they were revisiting the site where Fa’amoana was held.

“You’re feeling for the moment. That’s what I like, it’s to be really in the moment. And that’s something over the years that I know is the magic; it’s the magic of not getting pushed by a team of people going ‘What are we doing?’, and just making sure everyone is quiet, and is able to be nimble.”

Nawalowalo, who has family ties to Kadavu, says it was a privilege to show the film in detention centres, both here in Fiji and in New Zealand.

A Boy Called Piano intersperses narrative from Fa’amoana with a spare but evocative piano soundtrack, and beautiful images of children playing and diving underwater, running across sand dunes, riding horses and of the ulafala (the red pandanus necklace worn by Samoan chiefs and orators).

These images, and the sense of freedom and family they suggest, stilled an initially restless audience in Samabula, Nawalowalo said.

“I was trying to incite the memory of something where they can feel that freedom. And I think water…for Pacific children, the ocean is theirs. That’s a very important, powerful motif and I also love the idea of it connecting to the womb, connecting to innocence.”

Nawalowalo also met with young Fijians involved in the film industry during her recent visit to the country.

“It was brilliant…What it was about was really opening up their own creative pathways,” she said.

She believes there is huge scope for local storytelling, noting the desire of some participants to make documentaries about things happening in Fiji that are ‘sort of buried’.

A Boy Called Piano includes footage from the New Zealand Royal Commission of Inquiry into Abuse in Care, which looked into what happened to children, young persons and vulnerable adults while in State care, or in the care of faith-based institutions between 1950 and 1999.

Fa’amoana John Luafutu was the first Pacific Islander to testify at that Inquiry says Nawalowalo.

In one of the film’s pivotal scenes, District Court Judge Ida Malosi (herself of Samoan heritage) says to Fa’amoana: “On behalf of all of our people, all of our community, I claim you… I stand for the might of our people, and I honour you, because you show the best of our people.”

It is a moment of healing, that speaks to the journey Nawalowalo hopes her art takes.

“I believe that, in order to heal, or in order for society to be able to face the real things that happen, we have to work out how to discuss them and bring them to the surface. So I think art and I think film and theatre allows us to reflect on society in many ways,” Nawalowalo said.

The director is now working on a New Zealand-Fijian story. “I have a Fijian story that I’ve been developing, and it is the right time to come back to myself and my own identity,” she said.

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