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I like watching a movie for the first time knowing as little as possible about it prior. I avoid trailers and ratings — I like to keep an element of surprise. I went into The Martian thinking it was going to be about J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter. All I knew about One Thousand Ropes was that it would contain a pregnant Frankie Adams (Ilisa) and a wall with missing photo frames demarcated.
The Wellington premiere of One Thousand Ropes opened with speeches from Minister of Arts, Culture, and Heritage Maggie Barry, producer Catherine Fitzgerald, and director Tusi Tamasese. Once I heard Tui Atua Tupua Tamasese Ta’isi Efi acknowledged as a distinguished guest, I realised this event was monumental — not just to local artists, the NZ film industry, and government officials who mispronounce every single Samoan name (does no one receive PR training for this?!), but to the wider Samoan, and Pasifika, communities. I suspected the film would address violence when the Honourable Maggie Barry complimented the film for “punching above its weight — pun intended, given the subject of the movie.”
This film is h e a v y. Its pace is slow and, in the words of Tamasese, “demands a lot of your patience.” When watching the movie, my mind was overloaded with a thousand thoughts: whether violence is a legitimate form of protection, the normalisation of domestic violence in diasporic Samoan communities, indigenous spirituality and healing, the intergenerational disconnection between migrant parents and and their first generation New Zealand children, low socio-economic realities of the working class, the differences between the spoken gagana Samoa versus the English subtitles, the muted colour palette, the lack of a soundtrack but the visceral sound of Maea pulling a tooth out of his toe, the close-ups of dirty and bloodied skin, how Samoans laugh in such dire contexts, and if this film provided an accurate depiction of Samoan life.
This movie is praised for being a gritty, unflinching look at the reality of Samoan and Pacific communities. I wrote in Issue 01 that Moana “does not claim to be an accurate anthropological telling of the Pacific.” One Thousand Ropes, in contrast, was framed as a film that sheds light onto “real” problems that “real” Pacific communities face — right here in Aotearoa.
Pasefika Proud, an organisation dedicated to “promoting better well being by preventing violence in Pacific families and communities,” partnered with the film for their One Hundred Men Of Influence campaign, which is “a call to action targeting fathers to take responsibility for ending family violence in their family.” Actors Tuiasau Uelese Petaia (Maea) and Beulah Koale (Molesi) delivered emotive speeches at the premiere — urging the men in the room to think about their definition of masculinity and its implications for the people they love. They encouraged men to continue the conversation beyond the theatre, to take it back to their male friends and family members. I fought hard to hold my tears back when Petaia spoke — he spoke English with a fobby accent that felt so familiar, familial; powerful and gentle at the same time. Koale thanked the women in his life for showing him that being a man doesn’t rely on an aggressive display of physical strength.
This film explores different expressions of strength. This is shown predominantly through Maea’s contradictory character. His careful yet strong hands mili pregnant women and deliver babies from mothers who, out of social and cultural shame, don’t go to the hospital. These hands also knead the dough of the keke pua’a, an outlet for pent-up anger. These same hands also beat up a young colleague, for showing disrespect to an older one. They had also beaten his wife. These violent acts occur off-screen. Maea’s isn’t the only strength the film brings attention to. Women’s strength is displayed through Seipua’s relentlessness on living beyond the grave, and Ilisa during her pregnancy and delivery (which she handles completely alone). Ilisa’s strength is fully realised when she eliminates Seipua for good, as well as taking herself and her baby away from the abusive men in her life.
Does the “realness” of the film rely on whether the characters or storyline would actually exist in our real world, things people have experienced themselves, truths they already know? Yet, fiction allows us to imagine a level of reality that doesn’t look exactly like ours, but touches on very real aspects of it. The language, the jokes, the cultural shame of young (and unmarried) women’s unplanned pregnancies, the reliance on physical strength to showcase masculinity — these all felt real. Even Seipua felt real. I only know echoes of stories about indigenous Samoan spirituality (taboo in most contexts I’ve been in). I haven’t lived them, nor have I heard direct accounts of people’s experience with them. But Seipua’s “realness” for me didn’t rely on whether or not she’s an accurate visual depiction of aitu; I cannot verify this. But I’ve seen her violent anger before, in my real world. The way she condemned Maea’s abusive actions, attacked Ilisa for telling her to go away, and yearned to live and be free — these all felt real.
One Thousand Ropes requires a second viewing. It can be frustrating when you feel like a film is being elusive and difficult for the sake of being artsy — “I don’t get it.” This complaint often assumes there is one takeaway message, one moral-of-the-story hidden that only the exclusively artsy and/or “smart” people can find. I urge you to support this film with your dollars. Pasifika narratives within mainstream Aotearoa are often packaged in bright colours, floral designs, singing, dancing, and laughter: Fresh, Laughing Samoans, Pasifika Festival, Tangata Pasifika. We need diversity in our narratives and One Thousand Ropes is one (monumental) example of it (there are many counternarratives in Pasifika art and discourse but often in lesser-known contexts).
Go into the cinema with an open but critical mind; reflect on your own honest reactions. Pay attention to the parts that are unsettling, confusing, and enjoyable for you. It sounds taxing and it is, I suppose. But this is what I like doing in my spare time.