Representations of
Pacific Islanders in Film and Video

Vilsoni Hereniko

For the last hundred years, Hollywood films have depicted Pacific Islanders in stereotypical terms. From Bird of Paradise (1932, 1951) to South Pacific (1958) and The Thin Red Line (1998), Pacific Islanders—particularly Polynesians—are portrayed as a simple people lacking in complexity, intellect, or ambition. Acting always as a group, Pacific characters can be seen running, fishing, eating, or playing with little or no differentiation between one individual and another.

Rarely the protagonists in Hollywood films, Pacific Islanders merely provide colorful background in tropical settings which to those who live in cold industrial countries are the equivalent of Eden or Paradise. When Pacific Islanders are not laughing, dancing, or feasting in this idyllic setting, they are often depicted as dangerous, evil, even cannibalistic. Again, there is no complexity in this kind of portrayal: Pacific Islanders are either noble savages or the equivalent of the biblical snake in the Garden of Eden. These kinds of portrayals—by Hollywood films as well as by associated agents of the imperialistic agenda such as most missionary accounts, anthropological writings, and paperback novels—linger long in the popular imagination, so much so that it is not uncommon for Pacific Islanders who travel to Europe to be asked if they are still cannibals. It is not a coincidence that this image of the cannibalistic Pacific Islander can be seen in several films shot in Fiji, such as Blue Lagoon (1980) and Rapa Nui (1994).
Editorial Addendum: The film Rapa Nui was filmed on Rapa Nui (Easter Island), not on Fiji as stated.

Feature films made by or about Pacific Islanders are few and far between. The only ones that have made some impact outside the Pacific seem to be a handful of films from New Zealand/Aotearoa. Films such as Once Were Warriors (Lee Tamahori, 1994), Te Rua (Barry Barclay, 1990), Utu (Geoff Murphy, 1982), and Flying Fox in a Freedom Tree (Martyn Sanderson, 1989), portray Polynesians as deeply troubled because of colonization. For them, home is not Paradise, but a site where they live at the fringe of mainstream society, dispossessed and often seeking redress or compensation from their oppressors. These images seem to have been created in opposition to colonization, and though important in that they depict an aspect of Pacific life that is truthful, there is a need for a wider range of settings, themes, lifestyles, and characters in feature film that will capture the complexity and diversity of experiences that characterize the contemporary Pacific. In this respect, the documentary has great possibilities.

Pacific Islanders engaged in making documentaries today are faced with the challenge of debunking the stereotypical images that the rest of the world have about them. Their task is to portray Pacific Islanders as fully human. After all, we are not always happy-go-lucky, easy-going, compliant, and uninformed. Many of us speak several languages and have traveled the world or lived overseas for most of our lives; many of us surf the internet daily and see ourselves as world citizens; many of us are educators, artists, lawyers, doctors, or pilots. Our identities are therefore complex and complicated, multiple, and shifting. This complexity needs to be reflected more and more in film and video, so that the world can benefit from a more accurate picture of the Pacific. For instance, the image of the Pacific Islander with multiple identities, straddling traditional and modern worlds successfully, is one that doesn’t exist yet in film or video.

A noticeable growth in the number of Pacific Islanders involved in video or film—particularly in the making of documentaries—has been evident since the early 1970s. Mainly shot on video, these documentaries reflect a wide range of cultural identities, experiences, and concerns and thereby complicate and challenge preconceived notions of Pacific Islanders. This is not to deny the fact that some of these documentaries, particularly in the early years, have tended to perpetuate some of the earlier stereotypes. But just as the struggles for de-colonization and independence in the Pacific have been a slow experience, the art of making documentaries that will enhance the dignity of Pacific Islanders and yet not be sentimental has had its fits and starts. By the end of the twentieth century, however, the documentary—particularly in works from New Zealand, Hawai’i, and Papua New Guinea—have shown a sophistication and artistry that is impressive.

In New Zealand, the existence of the New Zealand Film Commission has made it easier for aspiring filmmakers of Pacific Islands descent to be involved in this relatively expensive medium. Auckland, which has the largest number of Polynesians living in a city anywhere in the world, leads the way in terms of the number of Maori, Samoans, Tongans, or Niueans involved in making films or video. Perhaps the most noteworthy Maori documentarian is Merata Mita, whose works include Bastion Point: Day 507 (1980) and Patu (1983). In recent years, the narrative short film seems to have usurped the documentary as a preferred genre in New Zealand.

At the 1996 Venice International Film Festival, a short film by a young Samoan woman living in New Zealand won the award for best short film. O Tamaiti, written and directed by Sima Urale, has set a high standard that her compatriots will find difficult to surpass. Shot in black and white, and depicting Samoans in the city as too busy with city life to be mindful of their children, this fearless portrayal challenges preconceived notions we may have of Polynesians being the exemplar of a society in which children are supported and lovingly raised by a community of adults. After her win, Sima Urale has written and directed a documentary titled Velvet Dreams (1997), a tongue-in-cheek peek at male artists who eroticize Polynesian women in their velvet paintings.

In Papua New Guinea, a handful of documentaries made in the last decade have been well-received in the Pacific region and at film festivals abroad. Most well-known are Joe Leahy’s Neighbours (Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson, 1988) and Black Harvest (Connolly and Anderson, 1992, screened in competition at YIDFF ’93). Dealing with a local entrepreneur of mixed descent caught between the demands and challenges of tradition and modernity, these documentaries offer glimpses into a society in transition, as well as the shattered dreams of individuals with different values and aspirations. Viewed alongside other documentaries such as Andrew Pike, Hans Nelson, and Gavin Daws’s Angels of War (1983) and Dennis O’Rourke’s Cannibal Tours (1987)—the first is about the war in the Pacific; the second about different perceptions of the “other” when tourists and natives meet—documentaries set in Papua New Guinea portray images of a country that is rich in cultural heritage, but unable to make a smooth tradition into the modern world and its demands.

In Hawaii, the documentary has been a weapon for change among political activists and cultural stewards. The Hawaii International Film Festival, established in 1981, took it upon itself to highlight the work of Asians (including people of Asian descent) and Pacific Islanders, and played an influential role in encouraging aspiring local filmmakers. For the first time, Native Hawaiians found an international arena that allowed their work to be seen by thousands of people from within and without Hawaii. Screenings of documentaries made by locals were often accompanied by culturally appropriate introductions and after-film discussions. Hawaiian chants, flower garlands, Hawaiian music, and hula became a feature of these screenings. How a newly completed documentary is introduced and screened sometimes became just as important, if not more so, than the product itself.

Among the most noteworthy of Hawaiian filmmakers is Eddie Kamae. Finding the Hawaii International Film Festival to be enthusiastic about every single cultural production he directs, Kamae, with his wife Myrna as producer, has continued over the years to produce high-quality works and to offer their world premieres to the Hawaii International Film Festival. Their focus on Native Hawaiian culture, particularly its music, song, dance, environment, elders, and ancestors, gives the impression that the Kamaes are not political activists. However, their choice of subject matter and their non-linear style of storytelling make their work more political than is readily apparent. By insisting that their screenings be introduced within the context of Hawaiian music and dance, storytelling, foods and drinks, as well as of an emphasis on the wisdom of the elders, the Kamaes call into question the Western emphasis on product rather than process. Among the most important works by the Kamaes are Listen to the Forest (1991), The Hawaiian Way (1993), Words, Earth and Aloha (1995) and Li'a, The Legacy of a Hawaiian Man (1983). With support from the local community and funding organizations, Eddie and Myrna are likely to continue to produce documentaries that will record for perpetuity the Native Hawaiian way of life, particularly those aspects of culture that are in danger of dying out.

The documentary Act of War: The Overthrow of the Hawaiian Nation (screened in the Indigenous Peoples’ Film & Video Festival at YIDFF ’93) by Puhipau and Joan Lander merits a special mention. Made in 1993, this video is anti-American and pro-sovereignty for Hawaiians in very clear black-and-white terms. Carefully researched and exhaustively documented, this video exposes the imperialistic agenda of the American government, the racism and prejudices of its agents in Hawaii and on the mainland, and the need for Native Hawaiians to regain control of their sovereignty. The impressive number of interviewees of Native descent with academic credentials to back up their claims and assertions, coupled with this production’s intelligent approach to the most emotionally charged issue in contemporary Hawaii, are factors that perhaps explain this production’s success and impact wherever it has been shown, locally or overseas.

The formation in 1991 of Pacific Islanders in Communications, a non-profit organization funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, with the goal of fostering national public broadcast programming by and about Pacific Islanders, has resulted in the production of works that explore a multitude of issues pertinent to Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders: land and water rights, language preservation, traditional navigation skills, significant historical events as well as people, Hawaiian beliefs and values, and American imperialism. Some of the significant names of filmmakers whose works have been partially funded by this organization include David Kalama, Ruth Tuiteleleapaga, Meleana Myer, and Elizabeth Lindsey.

All the filmmakers mentioned so far have had their works screened at the Hawaii International Film Festival. For most, it was this festival that gave them their world premieres, their first foot through the door of filmmaking. From 1981 to 1995, the Hawaii International Film Festival identified artistically and culturally significant films from and about the Pacific Islands; provided Pacific Island filmmakers with an opportunity to meet with other filmmakers and film industry leaders from throughout the world; held seminars and after-film discussions relating to issues of representation and culture; published articles by scholars and filmmakers about film and video from the Pacific; and even invited Pacific Islanders to be on its international jury. This kind of support from film festivals not only allowed many first-time filmmakers from the Pacific access to an international audience, but enabled them to view and evaluate their work alongside those by their counterparts in other parts of the world.

By the end of the twentieth century, Pacific Islanders’ representation in film and video has become much more complex and complicated. This is mainly because many indigenous Pacific Islanders are now making their own films and videos. In control of their own images and their own stories, particularly in the genre of the documentary, Pacific Islanders are debunking the stereotypes perpetuated by Hollywood films. The quantity of works made by Pacific Islanders increases every year, and the quality gets better and better. As more and more Pacific Islanders become writers, directors, and producers of documentaries or feature films, film and video from the Pacific are likely to receive more international recognition.

I thank my wife, Jeannette Paulson Hereniko, for her help with the research for this paper.


Vilsoni Hereniko

Vilsoni Hereniko is from the island of Rotuma in Fiji. He is an associate professor at the Center for Pacific Islands Studies at the University of Hawaii where he teaches courses on Pacific Islands film, literature, and theater. He is also a playwright and filmmaker. His plays have been performed in Fiji, Hawaii, New Zealand, and England. He has also written and directed a documentary on ritual clowning on Rotuma (1989) and a short fiction film (1998). The latter, Just Dancing, was an official selection in 1998 at the Pusan International Film Festival, the Hawaii International Film Festival, the Los Angeles Asia-Pacific Film Festival, and the Palm Springs International Short Film Festival. He is currently working on a feature film project to be filmed in Rotuma in 2001.