As the cinema screen lights up, you can just make out through the heavy white mist, punctuated by thick smears of film grain, an imposing mountain range covered in trees. We move into a close-up of foliage, while rainwater finds its way from leaf to leaf before falling to the earth. The camera cuts to scenes of a village as the dense sound design envelops you in 360 degrees of scabrous falling rain. It is an otherworldly opening scene and in a post-Avatar age when even jungles are not free from absurd computer-generated interventions, it is reassuring to see that natural and authentic beauty can still draw a few gasps of surprise from jaded cinemagoers. Audiences would be right to find this setting unfamiliar. It is the opening to “The Orator,” the first feature film to be made on the island of Samoa.
“The Orator” is the story of Saili and Vaaiga, a married couple living in a village at the edge of a jungle. They are both outcasts. Vaaiga was banished from her village 17 years ago when she became pregnant out of wedlock and Saili is afflicted with dwarfism, which excludes him from the chiefly class that is his birthright. It is a tragic story that soulfully deals with ideas of spirituality, belonging and the extent to which love can motivate the most profound changes of character. We are not given any plot information up front; rather it is drip-fed over the course of several “day in the life” sequences. We observe, and by observing come to learn and understand who these people are and what about their culture and society they live in has led to their exclusion.
For a film called “The Orator,” it takes a surprisingly long time for anyone to speak. Indeed, “The Orator” takes its cues from the exclusively visual storytelling of silent cinema. In place of words and exposition, Tamasese produces powerful compositions that say more in a single shot than some entire scenes of expositional dialogue. And when the characters finally do speak, it is with the weighted significance of a silent film title card; every word is precious, none are wasted. We understand the village’s power dynamics from where people sit, we understand our relationship to them from where the camera is placed. Like the Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu, Tamasese tugs at the heartstrings stronger with a moment of silence than many other directors could with an entire scene of dialogue.
Tamasese, in an exclusive interview with The Daily Californian, claimed his exploration of the possibilities of noise and silence was trying to evoke the “silent conversation,” something that he notices every time he returns to Samoa from New Zealand, where he now lives. The silent conversation is a way of communicating through mannerisms and body language, information that would usually be communicated through dialogue, or overt action.
Tamasese’s proclivity for quiet, meditative set-ups — showing his characters sitting on the floor in meditative calm — makes an obvious comparison to Japanese cinema. Citing Ozu and the Japanese master, Akira Kurosawa as his influences, Tamasese notes that not only is there a cultural similarity but that, “Japanese filmmaking is very similar to how we see Samoa.” The Japanese influence goes further. Ozu and Kurosawa broke new ground by taking the profoundly Western medium of film and reimagining it in their own cultural contexts. Ozu invented the “tatami shot” that took the viewer down onto the tatami mat to sit eye to eye with his characters, giving the audience an inside look into their unique world.
Like Ozu’s, Tamasese’s characters spend a lot of their time on the floor and he allows his camera to take the viewer down with them, drawing us into their world. But Tamasese goes beyond the Japanese influence. “In Samoan culture,” he says, “we have a belief that we are from the earth and I couldn’t separate a Samoan from his environment, he has to be close to the earth and surrounded by nature.” Saili, is the perfect conduit to this world. The camera rarely looks down on him; it is placed on his level, putting us firmly in his world. He is constantly surrounded and by overbearing totems of nature, tarot roots, palms and the ever-present rain.
Here, Tamasese plays with the language of film. Ordinarily, moments of scenery before characters appear would be left on the cutting room floor in the interest of pacing, but scenes in “The Orator” invariably open on a moment of green foliage which the subject will move into, or sweep aside. It is a telling moment, emphasising the balance between humanity and nature in the story and in the filmmaking itself.This underlines the film’s greatest strength, that for all its soul and heart (and filming on the isolated island must have certainly taken generous amounts of both), the film succeeds in intellectually challenging the medium itself. Too often do foreign filmmakers travel to countries around the world and seek to fit indigenous stories into their own (likely Western) way of seeing. Perhaps even sadder, is watching local filmmakers resort to tried and true foreign methods of filmmaking to tell their own stories, seemingly giving up on the validity of their perspective. Then there are filmmakers like Ozu, Kurosawa, Tracey Moffatt and now Tamasese who courageously tell their own stories and invent a cinema language that is up to the task of telling them.