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The power of oratory is the subject of the rare Samoan film, The Orator, from Samoan filmmaker Tusi Tamasese, who tells Andrew L. Urban how he overcame some of the challenges of making the film. (In cinemas in Australia from November 17, 2011)

Samoan filmmaker Tusi Tamasese’s movie about a dwarf who stands up for what’s rightfully his had a wobbly start when the circus performer he wanted to cast in the lead role didn’t turn up for the audition. It seemed rescue was at hand when a women from another of the Samoan islands rang to say her son was a dwarf, would he come and interview him for the role.

“When we got there we discovered her son wasn’t a dwarf at all, but a 15 year old boy,” Tamasese says in his quiet, unassuming way. “But she did in the end introduce us to Fiaula Sanote, who is a dwarf. But he was smaller than the character I had in mind and he also had trouble walking.”

But after a friendly conversation, Tamasese found Sanote would be great – and cast him. But if that was a difficult start, what came next was many times worse.

"the story of Samoan dwarf "

The film is the story of Samoan dwarf Saili (Fiaola Sanute), an unassuming taro farmer, who lives happily with his beautiful wife Vaaiga (Tausili Puchpara) and her teenage daughter Litia (Salamasina Mataia). Their existence, whilst happy and peaceful; is unconventional. Vaaiga has been banished from her ancestral village for many years. Saili faces serious threats to his plantation as well as his family and has been denied his father’s chiefly title. Life is further complicated by Litia's blossoming beauty that is getting the attention of the young men in the village. Matters ultimately come to a head, requiring Saili to speak up, speak out and defend all that he holds precious.

“The screenplay,” says Tamasese, “is based on another small person I know and some of the events, like moving the corpse by bus, are taken from real incidents.” 

Tamasese’s best memory from the production was “that last shot!” he says with a small laugh. Making the film had been “very stressful …” part of the reason was the New Zealand crew toiling under the hot Samoan sun – for six weeks. “The heat stirred up a lot of tensions. We had to carry all the gear through the heat and everything. Very hard …”

"got a kick out seeing the actors grow in confidence"

For all the challenges, Tamasese got a kick out seeing the actors grow in confidence. “They’re mostly non-actors or have very little experience, but it was great to see the confidence in their eyes after a while.”

The other reward came when he screened the film to Samoans at home; “I got a lot of positive feedback. I was worried they wouldn’t like what I did, but they say that I show the bad side of Samoans but also the good side. So they’re happy with it.”

Published November 17, 2011

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Tusi Tamasese

... on set


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