Local filmmakers finally getting screentime
By Ben Wheeler
“Every culture has the right and responsibility to present its own culture to its own people,” writes New Zealand filmmaker Barry Barclay.
“That responsibility is so fundamental it cannot be left in the hands of outsiders, nor usurped by them.”
These words seem more relevant in Fiji than ever after a year in which local filmmaking – Fijian faces, voices and stories – found itself celebrated on the big screen at a number of Suva-based film festivals.
In 2022 the Suva International Short Film Festival, the RARAMA Film Festival, and the Pacific Human Rights Film Festival all featured content from emerging talent like Dan Veitata, Simran Chand, Epi Vuruna, Abby Nasilasila, Clarence Dass, Regina Shiki, Tristan Petueli, Esekaia Qio and Tumeli Tuqota Jr.
“We need more storytellers from our corner of the Pacific,” says Tumeli, whose animated short Soli Bula continues to be selected and screened at indigenous film festivals around the world since its release.
“As technology progresses, filmmaking tools are becoming cheaper via better phones, learning is now easier with video tutorials online, and more people have access to both.”
Regina Shiki, an artist whose love for Pacific stories and spirituality come together in the experimental use of multiple visual media including film, agrees.
Her work – bold colours with a focus on hair and identity, autonomy and introspection – drew an appreciative audience as a central part of the ‘37%’ exhibition at the Centre for the Arts Suva, and her short, mythic animation The Mountain and the Moon resonated strongly with audiences at the RARAMA Film Festival.
“My hope for the Fijian film industry – and arts as a whole – is that it can open itself and artists to a wild self-expression and audacity,” she said. “I hope to see more experimentation and freedom.”
Such freedom is borne of an understanding of the medium, and perhaps more importantly, a desire to learn, something Dan Veitata – who recently walked away from the RARAMA Film Festival with the BRED Bank Popular Choice Award for his film Bean Peanut – knows all about.
“I learned how to be a better video editor, videographer and photographer from watching countless hours of YouTube tutorials,” he says of the skills that helped him create his first movie.
“I realised it depends on how much a person is willing to put in the hours of work to succeed.”
Having already put in those hours for eight years in a job in television without ever being afforded the opportunity to fulfil his lifelong dream of making a documentary, he quit and decided to make a film about “one of the everyday people of Suva.”
He found his star in Mausam Ali, who for 60 years has been selling snacks at Suva bus stand.
The film, described by audiences as a “rollercoaster of emotions” recalls memories of a bygone Suva from its reconstructions of Mr Ali’s early years of work, and brought howls of laughter and moments of real tenderness and emotion from the hundreds of people who came to see it.
The creation of a cineliterate generation capable of creating more films like Bean Peanut would be expedited through access to more diverse films in Fiji, and weaving the skills required to make them through the curricula of the education system.
This is where Film Fiji is stepping up.
Coming out of Covid lockdowns, Film Fiji has pioneered a government-backed, Australian Film Television and Radio School-supported project that has started Audio Visual Laboratories in eleven schools across Fiji.
This programme – the same as that currently used in schools across Australia – teaches scriptwriting, narrative and documentary filmmaking, with supplementary classes in camerawork and editing, explains Film Fiji CEO, Ramiro Tenioro.
“Most of these schools are now in the pre-production or production phases of their first end-of-course short movies.
“The main goal is to bring audio visual skills to tomorrow’s workforce, to be able to give these skills to local talent who want to learn either on a technical level or an artistic level,” he continues.
“We are very excited to see what the next few years will bring once all of this young talent gets this access.”
It certainly is an exciting time for the burgeoning Fijian film industry, with 2023 promising much as new skill sets, embedded in the school system, ignite the oral storytelling tradition that is part of every Pacific Islander’s heritage.
“Even though there are so many Pasifika stories to tell, we are severely underrepresented in the filmmaking industry, let alone Fijians and even more so Rotumans,” laments Tristan Petueli.
“The main reason I got into this field was so that I could showcase my Hanua (homeland), Fäeaga (language), ma Ag fak hanua (culture) on the big screen.”
Now, for the first time, Fijians filmmakers like Tristan are seeing content that existed online (like his stunning debut Mua) celebrated on big screens at the various film festivals that have sprung up in the country’s capital and beyond.
Clarence Dass’ masterful homage to body snatchers-styled horror, Envy, is a case in point.
Made in 2012, it is now taking audiences by storm, with gasps and screams reverberating around the auditorium at its multiple recent screenings – no mean feat for a film less than ten minutes in length.
In post-screening discussions, those audiences enthusiastically explained to me their reaction to this film, and others in the selection.
They are seeing themselves cinematically.
They are reminded that Fijian culture and stories can and should be celebrated and represented on film.
With these young filmmakers increasingly making more and more noise both locally and globally, with little to no assistance, who is to say what will happen once this new flourishing in the local Fijian film industry finds real investment?
Ruve Ni Yawani Pictures, a Suva-based filmmaking collective, started making shorts with nothing but a phone during the Covid lockdowns. They have seen their films clock up over 200,000 views online, as well as enjoying huge success on the local festival circuit with films like Sotava and Bera – the latter winning the Bred Bank Critics’ Choice Award at RARAMA.
“We hope to develop a Fijian cinema that can someday compete with the big leagues of Hollywood,” says member Epi Vuruna.
With the momentum and excitement currently being generated, this may not be such a bold claim.
This article first appeared in Fiji Traveller, January-March 2023.