12 Questions: Tusi Tamasese

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Tusi Tamasese says he didn't set out to confront domestic violence in One Thousand Ropes but is hopeful the film can fuel conversation. Photo / Nick Reed
Samoan film maker Tusi Tamasese's new feature One Thousand Ropes, starring Frankie Adams, explores the inter-generational effects of domestic violence.

By Jennifer Dann

1. Your main character is a man estranged from his family due to his history of domestic violence, who works as a midwife. Is it common to have male midwives in Samoan culture?

No, traditional midwifery is mostly done by women but the masseurs are commonly men. I wanted to write a story about a healer and midwife and explore what would happen if it was a man. Traditional midwifery, like tattooing, belongs to particular families who pass the knowledge on through the generations. When the missionaries came they put a stop to spiritual-based traditions, so people hid the knowledge. All the old women that used to do midwifery have now passed on and a lot of the knowledge has faded or changed. A central question in the film is will the tradition survive? He has the gift - will he pass it on to his daughter?

2. Frankie Adams plays his estranged daughter, who turns up heavily pregnant needing refuge from her abusive partner. Did you set out to confront domestic violence in this film?

No, but I hope that if it succeeds in anything it succeeds in bringing out a conversation on this topic. I'm a character writer. I don't deliberately set out to push a point. I'm more interested in exploring what it is to be human. When I was writing this film I wanted to have an anti-hero, like Daniel Day-Lewis's character in There Will Be Blood. I like the imperfection in those sorts of people and want to explore how they would react to situations. So that's where the violence came in. You can see the irony of someone who can heal and can be destructive as well.

3. Do you have any personal experience of domestic violence?

No, I'm very fortunate. Growing up we'd get a smack when we deserved it but never a beating. I did a lot of research on domestic violence. I read a lot and listened to people I know that have been victims of domestic abuse. It is such a test of human strength and the will to break the bonds.

4. The main character is haunted by a ghost, played by Sima Urale. Why this particular ghost?

This is a man who is alone, who is disconnected from the world emotionally and his only way of connecting is through massaging pregnant women. His relationship with the ghost is quite hostile, yet they also find companionship through what they share. The ghost is desperate to live again, which is why she stays there, and he's also trying to be reborn as well.

5. Is this an aspect of Samoan culture you are keen to share?

Yes, Samoans believe that your loved ones never really leave you. You're always connected to them and have this bond with them. I'm interested in exploring that because it's a human thing. We are born, we live and we die. I just use my culture as an example to look at this cycle. Also I wanted to write a horror story - an arty horror.

6. Your debut feature The Orator was the first film to be shot in Samoa in the Samoan language. Your second feature is set in New Zealand but is also in Samoan. Why is that?

A lot of Pacific families in New Zealand have two languages spoken in the household so I wanted to be true to that but also show the gaps between the generations. For example, I speak Samoan to my kids. They understand Samoan but they speak back to me in English.

7. Why is the film set in the Wellington suburb of Newtown?

I live in Berhampore, the next suburb over. I love the murals on the walls in Newtown and I love the Bolton Street Cemetery with all those little walkways. I thought why is no one shooting this? We were lucky to be able to shoot the film in the Arlington Apartments before they were torn down. They were a transitional place where a lot of immigrants came through. That was important for the story because the main character lives in a space where people transition and he and his daughter are in transition as well.

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8. How have audiences responded to the film so far?

People responded well at the Berlin Film Festival but this is an art film and that was an arty audience. I'm not sure how mainstream audiences will respond. It's not a comedy. It demands quite a lot of people's participation and patience. I would love people to leave feeling hopeful, but it's a hard film and some people won't see it that way. Showing birth is quite taboo in Samoan culture so it may offend some people.

9. You grew up in a Samoan village near Apia and come from a chiefly line. What were your parents' expectations of you?

My parents are quite driven. Dad was a mechanic who ran one of the public workshops. Mum's a businesswoman and designer who ran her own clothing company. They wanted me to do well in school and get a good job. When I finished seventh form Mum suggested I go have a look at New Zealand and see if I liked it.

10. What were you good at at school?

Daydreaming. Me and academia didn't go hand in hand. But I loved stories so I read a lot, especially books on Greek mythology. I also loved film and was exposed to a wide range of genres by my older brothers and sisters. One loved art films and foreign films, another loved kung fu and another liked mainstream films. My favourites back then were Spielberg movies like The Goonies. I saw Ran when it came out in Samoa but it was only when I studied film at Waikato University that I started to appreciate the art in it.

11. How did you make your break in the New Zealand film industry?

Getting your foot in the door is hard when you have no experience. I did a diploma at the New Zealand Film School in Wellington and by the end of the course I knew the only way to get into the industry was to write your own film and do it yourself. I wrote the script for The Orator but the Film Commission needed to see a sample of my work before they would fund it. So Catherine Fitzgerald, the producer, came up with a plan to shoot a short film in Samoa to try out the style we were trying to achieve. We wanted to transport the audience out of their seats and immerse them in the sound and feel of Samoa, the emptiness of the place. It worked and we got the funding.

12. Do you think of yourself as a film maker these days?

Only when I make a film. The rest of the time I'm a house husband and dad to our three kids aged 16, 13 and 7. My wife's Samoan too. She's an economist who works full time at MBIE. Most of the time I can work around things like getting the kids to school but once I become really involved in a project I don't have much time for family. I feel guilty about that which is why the film needs to be worth the time I spend away from them.

One Thousand Ropes opens in cinemas nationwide this Thursday, 23 March.

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