Saili, an unassuming villager and taro farmer, lives happily with his wife Vaaiga and their teenage daughter Litia. 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.
It’s not uncommon while watching a foreign film to feel you have missed the full story because you don’t understand the cultural context you’re in. The world of THE ORATOR (O Le Tulafale) differs from movies set in a Western or industrialized nations. As it says in the publicity material, the movie was entirely shot in Samoa, in the Samoan language, with a Samoan cast and story.
Saili is the hero of the piece and he is constantly beset by problems. His neighbours in his village are not happy about where he has buried his parents. The position of their graves infringes on the taro growing areas that others have their eye on. So there is some pressure for Saili to give up this land to others.
His wife Vaaiga and their daughter Litia are viewed as outsiders. Litia was born out of wedlock and so she and her mother have been cut off from their original family and are not accepted by Saili’s people. So their three-person family is effectively cut off from most social contact.
Saili has a job as the night watchmen of the local store. He performs his duties when no one else is around. He shuns contact with the others in the village. Yet he wants to be a chief. We are shown a system of village government where the men speak and make decisions as a council of chiefs; an elder who has the final say on important village matters heads this council. Saili doesn’t speak as part of the council and so is locked out of the decision-making process. The fact he is a dwarf seems to be yet another thing that is held against him, but this isn’t explicitly stated.
Many of these details are revealed very slowly. The rhythm of village life is the pace of this film. The challenge for the audience, particularly in the first half, is to concentrate on this quiet, intimate story. We are reminded that the glacial speed of life in the village is one reason that people who live in rural areas move to the cities. On the one hand, everything is lovely to the eye, the lush green landscape suggests a kind of utopian world where the people are living in harmony with nature; on the other hand, the universal pettiness of human interaction and social exclusion are in effect.
At first, I was frustrated by Saili. He is a passive main character. We come to understand that he is unhappy with his life, but his thought processes are mostly opaque. Again, we have to focus to understand his journey. There is no useful speech to a buddy or a Hamlet-style soliloquy to give us a heads up as to how this guarded man might react to any given situation.
Director Tusi Tamasese has cast the movie with non-professional actors. Fa’afiaula Sanote plays Saili as a stern fellow who eventually realizes that he has to deal with the problems and the people he has been avoiding. Eventually, I came to appreciate his performance as I came to appreciate the film as a whole.
Many arthouse or independent films distinguish themselves from popcorn films by concentrating on the details of character development. This film insists we pay close attention to a world that is unknown to most. THE ORATOR is about an ostracized taro farmer who is looking to claim his rightful place in a small community. And although that last sentence would look terrible on the movie poster, it’s a measure of THE ORATOR’s success that I wanted Saili to succeed in his quest.
THE ORATOR screens at Joondalup Pines from Tuesday 24 to Sunday 29 January. It runs for 106 minutes and is in Samoan with English subtitles. I rated it 3.5/5.