New Zealand Vies for First Oscar Nomination in Foreign Language Category

"The Orator"
"The Orator"
 

This story first appeared in the Nov. 25 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

When Samoan director Tusi Tamasese first met New Zealand producer Catherine Fitzgerald at a Wellington film school, his greatest ambition was to "make a short film." Three years later, Tamasese, 36, is being hailed as a brave new voice in world cinema, and his debut feature, The Orator, is New Zealand's first-ever entry in the foreign-language Oscar race.

Orator is pioneering in more ways than that: It's the first feature shot entirely in the Samoan language and the first filmed on the South Pacific island of Upolu.

The story focuses on Saili, the son of the dead village chief who has been ostracized by the community because he is a dwarf. Quiet and unassuming, Saili is forced to defend his family and way of life with nothing more than words and the power of his voice. In doing so, he claims his rightful place as chief.

Tamasese, who grew up on Upolu, the smaller of Samoa's two islands, says it was important that Samoa become a character in the film.

"The landscape, people, culture, images, color, sound and feel of Samoa offer this story a new and unique perspective of life," he says. While he wrote the script in English and translated it back into Samoan, he says he was careful to maintain authenticity by shooting on location with a mostly untrained local cast. Capturing the rhythms and cadence of spoken Samoan were key to the film's plot, he adds, particularly the difference between the villagers' everyday musical language and the orators' more formal speech.

"Formal oratory is part of Samoa's poetry and history," says Tamasese. "I wanted to showcase that as well as the language of everyday life."

Tamasese's ambling, observant directing style, which he says is derived from traditional Samoan storytelling, has wowed international critics and festival audiences alike.

Orator was showered with honors upon its premiere at the Venice International Film Festival, where it was named best film by the CinemAvvenire youth jury, took the top prize from Europe's art house cinemas association and received a special mention from the jurors of the Venice Horizons sidebar. And star Fiaula Sanote has picked up a best actor nomination from the Asia Pacific Screen Awards, to be handed out in November.

Amid all of the plaudits, the soft-spoken Tamasese remains humble. He has an idea for his next project but doesn't want to give away details. His hope, he says, is that Orator will pave the way for a new Samoan style of filmmaking "that equally tells a Pacific Island story that the whole cinema world can understand and appreciate." 

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